Covering suicide-mass shootings

I’m writing this post with great sadness this morning, in the wake of yet another suicide/mass shooting, this time very close to my geographic home. Along with my collaborator, Dr. Bryce Peake, I just finished an article about coverage of mass shootings, titled “Coverage That Kills.” While the article will appear in Catherine Squires’ Gender and Guns: Dangerous Discourses in the Age of Violence (forthcoming Peter Lang, 2016), I wanted to share some of our conclusions, because the evidence strongly suggests that the way journalists cover these crimes can increase the possibility that others will seek to emulate such violent acts.

In our article, we argue that journalists covering suicide-mass shootings should follow CDC suicide coverage guidelines when covering them. Research has demonstrated that irresponsible media reporting of suicides increases suicide rates. In the 1970s, sociologist David Phillips described this as the “Werther effect,” in reference to the copycat suicides that followed in the wake of publication of Goethe’s tragedy, The Sorrows of Young Werther. More recent research has described this as a suicide “spike” that results from coverage of suicide, or the spreading of a “suicide contagion.” The CDC describes contagion as “a process by which exposure to the suicide or suicidal behavior of one or more persons influences others to commit or attempt suicide.”

Not only does the Werther effect predict that more people will commit suicide in the wake of publicity of a suicide, it has also been demonstrated that more people will commit suicide using the same method as the original crime.

Research on suicide contagion further indicates that it is not simply publicity per se that causes increases in suicides, but certain kinds of publicity. According to the CDC, journalists should avoid narratives that provide the following:

  1. simplistic explanations for suicide
  2. repetitive, ongoing, or excessive reporting of suicide
  3. sensational coverage of suicide
  4. “how-to” descriptions of suicide
  5. presenting suicide as a tool for accomplishing certain ends
  6. glorifying suicide or persons who commit suicide. (1994, 4-5).

In the wake of a series of teen suicides in the 1980s, many US news organizations adopted standards endorsed by the CDC for covering suicides.

Given the fact that so many of the perpetrators of suicide-mass shootings leave posthumous press kits and clearly want to make sure that their names are part of the annals of violent acts, it is high time that we all follow the example of the Oregon sheriff who refused to name the shooter. Journalists should also avoid coverage that might be interpreted as aggrandizing or celebrating these acts (e.g. coverage that “keeps score,” like identifying an event as “the deadliest”).

From the files of anti-Communists

I’m spending most of the month of January reading through FBI files on their fellow travelers in the anti-Communist movement, scouring the pages of blacklisting publications like CounterAttack for traces of the blacklist in radio and TV (of which there are a lot).

But turns out that the anti-Communist right was obsessed with media writ large and I find myself thinking more and more about all the ways in which the FBI and other anti-Communist organizations and individuals were taking popular culture seriously, to paraphrase left Cultural Studies 1980 mantra.

The first item in their “WHAT CAN YOU DO TO BEAT THE COMMUNISTS?” section from December 3, 1949, the authors of  CounterAttack listed NOT buying books by Communists, fellow travelers, or anyone who had ever sympathized with anything backed by the Communist Party for Christmas as their number one strategy.

“In buying books for Christmas and in deciding what books to recommend for purchase by public libraries, college & school libraries, etc. be very careful. The following books are being plugged by Communists:

“My Glorious Brothers,” by Howard Fast, Communist novelist.

“The Naked and the Dead,” a best-selling novel by Norman Mailer.

“The Crusaders,” a best-selling novel by Stefan Heym.

“The Great Midland,” novel by Alexander Saxton.

“Hold with the Hares,” novel by Len Zinberg.

“Japan Diary,” by Mark Gayn. Attacks American policy.

“Home from the Cold Wars,” by Leslie Roberts. For appeasement.

“Russian Literature since the Revolution,” edited by Joshua Kunitz.

“People Come First,” by Jessica Smith. Communist book on Russia.”


Student Files Lawsuit Against UO

Earlier this week, UO rolled out its new brand. According to ABC News, “It was decided before the season started last fall to kick off a four-year overall marketing campaign using football as a welcome mat.” I doubt the power of “if,” as the UO’s campaign puts it (one of my grad students pointed out that the “the power of what if” was an old HP advertising campaign), grounded as it is in a branding campaign rather than reality. But it’s hard to doubt the power of Big Sports on college campuses around the country.

In November, the UO Senate Task Force released its report about sexual violence at UO, which included numerous recommendations for moving forward. In it, we noted,

We must not be reluctant to name sexual violence or to discuss its prevalence, even when doing so entails investigating and addressing problems within organizations that contribute to the social and cultural life of the university. We cannot ignore the fact that, despite the relatively small number of students directly involved in their activities, Athletics and Fraternity and Sorority Life.(FSL) play disproportionately powerful roles in facilitating or tolerating conditions in which sexual violence occurs on campus. This observation is grounded in decades of research on campus sexual violence, review of the training materials made available to the President’s Review Panel by Athletics, the walls of secrecy that surround these cultures, their activities, and their problems, and the number of high-profile cases of sexual violence in athletics programs and Greek life nationwide that exhibit many of the same problems we are experiencing at UO.

Today, the University of Oregon and basketball coach Dana Altman were sued over the sexual assault that occurred at UO last March. It may be that the walls of secrecy will come down yet.

Among the issues to consider from the complaint:

  • What UO knew: “Upon information and belief, Defendant Altman, assistant coach Tony Stubblefield, and other UO personnel thoroughly investigated Austin’s suspension and discussed the issues with Austin, his family and friends, and members of the Providence coaching staff. Upon information and belief, Altman and other UO personnel were fully aware. ln fact, Austin’s mother, when asked about what the UO coaches knew, said, “We told them everything. They knew everyhing.”
  • Despite previous concerns about the Federal Educational Records and Privacy Act( FERPA), “Counsel for Plaintiff told UO officials and attomeys that Plaintiff did not authorize the release of her privileged counseling file and instructed UO that the school administration and attorneys were not permitted to obtain those records from the Counseling and Testing Center. Those records contain much detail about Plaintiffs personal life and family that are not related to any issues sunounding these events. Shortly thereafter, in December 2014, a member of the UO administration contacted the Counseling and Testing Center and required that center to produce Plaintiff s privileged therapy records to the administration without any legal authorization. This directly contravened Plaintiff s clear instruction and violated both the Federal Educational Records and Privacy Act and the Heath Information Portability and Accountabilify Act, as well as state protections for medical records. On information and belief, the privileged records were unlawfully collected for the UO administration and their attorneys to gain advantage in preparing for any future litigation.”

Oregon State University President’s Statement

Someone sent me this letter from the President of OSU. This is what real leadership looks like: not legalistic maneuvering, or reactions based on fear about the effect on brand or public image. “Our concern moving forward is to assist her healing.” A lesson in leadership for us all.

December 10, 2014

Dear Campus Community,

I would like you to know that we have concluded an investigation of the 1998 sexual assault that has been reported recently in the media.

This afternoon, Angelo Gomez, executive director of OSU’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, and I met with Brenda Tracy, the survivor of the assault, and shared the results of the university’s investigation into how OSU handled the incident. The assault reportedly involved two Oregon State football players at the time and other men not enrolled at the university. Ms. Tracy has made public through the media what she experienced.

I want to thank Ms. Tracy for raising the public dialogue about the consequences of sexual violence. I am grateful to her for raising the important discussion about how society assists survivors of such violence. While we cannot undo this nightmare, we apologize for any failure on Oregon State University’s part in 1998 to better assist Ms. Tracy.

Federal and state laws regarding student educational records do not allow OSU to share publicly what we shared confidentially today with Ms. Tracy as the survivor of this sexual violence.

 What we can share is that the student conduct environment in 1998 that dealt with off-campus matters involving a non-student was very different nationally – and at OSU. If this case was reported to us today, we would pursue significant student conduct actions – even if this violence took place off-campus and involved a survivor who was not a student.

I assure you that today we would respect the survivor’s wishes and their confidentiality. We would work with the survivor to fully pursue conduct sanctions including the suspension or expulsion of those OSU students who committed such an offense. And we would work to stop the sexual misconduct, prevent a recurrence and assist the survivor.

Earlier this month, I asked Oregon State officials to evaluate possible retroactive student conduct actions in this case, but they determined that law will not allow the university to take such action. Changing how the criminal process was managed in 1998 in this case is beyond OSU’s control.

As you may know, Ms. Tracy has expressed interest in talking with current members of the OSU football team regarding her experiences. We remain open and willing to have Ms. Tracy talk with members of the OSU football team to the extent that she is comfortable doing so and it is consistent with her healing. And we are open to have Ms. Tracy talk with members of the broader OSU student community, but only if it is consistent with her wishes.

What we learned these past weeks of Ms. Tracy’s life and suffering is heart-breaking. Our concern moving forward is to assist her healing.

Edward J. Ray


Oregon State University

600 Kerr Administration Building

Corvallis, Oregon 97331-2128


University-Based Sexual Assault Task Forces in US

Thanks to the efforts of one of my truly amazing colleagues in the UO Law School, we’ve been getting information about the Sexual Assault Task Forces that have begun to do the hard work of grappling with the problems on their campuses and making recommendations for change.

I’m going to add the websites for those that I’ve heard about — if there’s one on your campus that’s at work, or has issued recommendations, please send me urls or pdfs and I’ll share them here.

Emory University, “Visioning Report,” Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force (Oct. 20, 2014)

Michigan State University, “Annual Report on Sexual Misconduct,” 2014 University Task Force on Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence (Dec. 9, 2014)

Stanford University, Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault (report pending)

Universities: Unsafe at any Speed

Back in 1965, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile warned that the automobile industry was resisting design innovations that would make cars safer. Twelve years later, journalist Mark Dowdie got hold of a cost-benefit analysis from Ford Motors, showing that Ford was aware of a potentially fatal design flaw, but decided that it would be cheaper in the long run to pay off lawsuits than to change production.

Have universities performed a similar cost-benefit analysis when it comes to handling sexual violence? As details about Greek life are exposed by journalists — at Dartmouth; at the University of Virginia;  at Wesleyan; at Brown; and nationally, universities have several uncomfortable options. They can defend the existing Greek system on the basis of its community-building activities, its philanthropy, the fact that students apparently are demanding the kinds of experiences that the Greek system is said to deliver. On my campus, in fact, one administrator told a public meeting that he believed that sororities provided young women with support networks that could help prevent sexual assault.

They can  take measures intended mainly to protect their public image. The University of Virginia took the bold step of suspending all fraternities  . . . until January 2015.

Or they can stick their heads back in the sand and hope the whole controversy just blows over.

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Greeks boast that “members on average donate more than four times as much to their respective universities as alumni than do non greeks”  and that “Greeks give approximately 75% of all money donated to universities.”

I don’t know if those numbers are true. Universities are notoriously protective of their donor data. But true or not, institutions behave as if this is the truth: to take on the Greek system — even if it is in the interests of protecting students from alcohol poisoning, drugging, sexual assault, falls, fires, etc. — well, that’s to take on powerful financial interests.

Dependent on donors said to be invested in Greek life, Big Sports, and a party culture, university administrators (many of them products of systems that have for decades protected perpetrators and enabled the cultures of silence and shame that are only now being challenged) are weighing their moral and ethical obligations to students against the economic bottom line. A

nd like auto manufacturers, it appears that they’ve decided that it’s far more expensive to change their production process (e.g. acknowledging the extent of the problem, putting the brakes on Greek system) than it is to settle Title IX lawsuits (which, as a lawyer recently reminded me, are much harder to win than lawsuits brought by perpetrators).

It’s a shit system.

Why Research Institutions Should Not Sign up for the AAU’s Sexual Assault and Campus Climate Survey

Universities around the US have only recently, partially, and unevenly begun to reckon with campus sexual assault and sexual violence. For years, these problems have existed on campuses, cloaked in secrecy and shame.

The White House’s “Not Alone” report identified campus climate surveys as the single most important step toward identifying and addressing these problems.

Instead of proceeding transparently, openly, and scientifically, many universities are signing onto the AAU’s survey (which they have proposed as an alternative to the survey being developed by the White House for reasons they don’t care to specify).

I’ve attached a letter written by a number of scientists who have been in the forefront of studying sexual violence for years. Please read it, share it, and urge your administrators not to carefully weigh their options, and not rush into this.

Scientists to AAU Member Presidents 17 November 2014