by Dave Kopel
Rocky Mountain News November 29, 2008
How are journalists like particle physicists? Because in the very act of doing their job, they change the world they are describing. The difference is that with particle physics, nobody gets hurt.
In particle physics, the typical way to measure an electron's position and direction is to hit it with a photon. But as a result of the observation, the electron's position or direction are changed. In journalism, the typical response to violence is to report it - and the result is to unintentionally cause more violence.
Scholars such as Loren Coleman and Clayton Cramer have already documented how sensational media coverage of mass murders, including attacks on schools, inspires more attacks by people seeking infamy. New research indicates that media coverage of violence helps cause violence even by perpetrators who are not seeking personal notoriety.
The November 2008 issue of International Sociology includes a study of soccer hooliganism in the Netherlands in 2001-'05. Authors Robert Braun and Rens Vliegenthart examined the effects of four variables on the frequency of violence at professional soccer matches. One variable, the level of police repression, had no effect. Increased violence did seem to result from higher unemployment rates among males under 24, and from more aggressive play (as measured by penalties) by the teams.
For the media effect, the researchers studied coverage in the five largest Dutch newspapers, and found: "Media attention for fan violence in the previous four weeks substantially increases hooliganism; every 100, or 50 when appearing on the front page, words a journalist writes on soccer vandalism result in 0.18 more acts of violence." Stated another way, you get one additional act of violence for every 555 words (or 278 words on the front page) of newspaper coverage of previous violence.
It's not necessarily true that the newspaper coverage was the immediate cause. As the authors note, the newspaper coverage of hooliganism was similar to television coverage of hooliganism; so it could be that the measured level of newspaper coverage was really a proxy for the levels of television coverage.
Also, the study did not differentiate among the five major newspapers. It's possible that potential hooligans were more influenced by the sensational, easy-to-read Telegraaf than by the high-quality Trouw.
Nobody has proven that Coloradans are as influenced by the media as the Dutch are. But it's hardly unreasonable for responsible journalists in Colorado to take some precautions so that the media, which often touts their role as responsible members of the community, do not inadvertently harm the community.
First of all, the Dutch study quantifies what journalists have always known intuitively: the extraordinary power of the front page. A story on the front page is about twice as powerful, in influencing behavior, as a story of the same length on an inside page. One reason may be that the front page is the only page which is seen even by people who don't buy the paper - since the page is on display at newspaper boxes, convenience stores and so on.
Some stories of violence (e.g., piracy in the Gulf of Aden) hardly seem likely to inspire Colorado copycats; other stories (e.g., the Columbine murders) are so important locally that they are necessarily front-page stories. However, there are plenty of incidents of local crimes where it's a judgment call whether the story should be front-page fodder. The Dutch study suggests that when there is a close call, the story should be placed inside the paper, not on the front.
Another issue is length. If some people vandalize a school in Douglas County, we wouldn't want coverage of that crime to inspire vandalism of a school in Arapahoe. The Dutch research suggests that a shorter story which tells the key facts in, say, 200 words, would be better than in-depth coverage with 1,000 words.
Wednesday's Denver Post carried a story (appropriately, not on the front page) about the Douglas County Schools' steps in response to several teenage suicides among district students. The Post article paraphrased a warning from the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology: "Those at risk of suicide because of depression or other problems sometimes attempt to kill themselves after hearing that someone else has done so."
Because none of the Denver newspapers or television stations feel obliged to report every premature death in the metro area, perhaps they should adopt a policy of almost never reporting suicides, absent special circumstances.
The Rocky Mountain News and the Post both acted responsibly in their recent coverage of Abraham Biggs, the young man in Florida who murdered himself during a real-time webcast. The papers ran Associated Press articles of the event, which was such a major national story that it could not be ignored. But neither paper printed a picture of Biggs, nor did their Web sites link to any of the video.