Airing, publishing killer's photos, rants reckless

Publicity a fresh inducement to mass murderers

April 21, 2007

by David Kopel

NBC's decision on Wednesday to publish the videos and photos which had been sent to the network by the Virginia Tech murderer was callous and reckless. The choices made by the Denver-area newspapers worsened the problem and endangered the public.

The news value to be gleaned from the killer's multimedia package was conveyed in a textual summary written by Robert Windrem on the MSNBC Web site. Forensic psychologists and other experts could have examined the videos and pictures privately, and provided additional analysis. If there was some public safety benefit to releasing some or all of the material, the experts could have informed NBC.

Instead, NBC rushed to a "scoop" by publishing much of the killer's pictures and videos, which quickly spread all over the Internet and the rest of the media like a virus.

There is strong evidence that mass killers, including the Columbine perpetrators, attentively study the media attention give to previous murderers. Loren Coleman, author of the book The Copycat Effect,points out on his weblog that one week after Columbine, there was a copycat school attack in Taber, Alberta, Canada. A month later there was a copycat attack in Conyers, Ga.

Subsequent Columbine copycats included school killers in Red Lake, Minn.; Santee, Calif.; Dawson College in Montreal, Canada; and this week at Virginia Tech.

The Columbine perpetrators themselves were, according to their diaries, looking to imitate and exceed the murders at a school in Springfield, Ore. And the Springfield killer was following the lead of two school killers in Jonesboro, Ark.

An award-winning scholarly article by Clayton Cramer in the Journal of Mass Media Ethicsdetails how the man who attacked a Louisville printing plant in late 1989 meticulously studied the publicity given to the man who attacked an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. The mass murderer at the École Polytechnique university in Montreal in 1989 was a great admirer of a man who had attacked the Quebec Parliament.

When national newsmagazines put the Columbine killers on the front cover, and when national television broadcasts incessant coverage of the murders, the media amplify and worsen the copycat effect.

Now, NBC and its imitators have offered a new inducement to mass murderers: proving that the media will cooperate with killers by worldwide publication of the photos and videos produced by the killer himself. To disseminate a murderer's narcissistic and hateful diatribes, to publish all over the world the publicity stills of the killer posing like characters from violent movies, to make his loathsome videos the most-seen videos in the world this week, was, in effect, to invite more sociopaths to achieve similar fame by similar means.

Even if there were no copycat danger, at a time when the families of the victims had not even buried their dead it was heartless for the media to allow themselves to be used by the killer to spew his evil thoughts.

The Rocky Mountain News, Denver Postand Boulder Daily Cameracould have chosen not to aggravate the copycat danger in Colorado. Unfortunately, all of them published the killer's "glamour shots" and video.

The Daily Camera'scover was the worst, with a huge picture of the killer pointing a handgun directly at the viewer. It was especially insensitive on the very day when many students were staying home from Boulder High School because, as the Daily Camerahad reported, there were threats of an attack at the school on April 19.

The Post'sfront page featured five pictures of the killer striking various poses.

The Rockyshowed better judgment. The posed pictures were printed only inside the newspaper, so that they did not impose themselves, via displays in news racks and newsstands, on unwilling viewers. Instead, the front page of the Rockyhad a picture of people in a Blacksburg, Va., restaurant watching a large-screen TV broadcast about the killer. At the moment, the screen showed only the killer's head and shoulders, and not one of his movie poses.

It would have been better if all the Denver media had refused to print the posed photos anywhere, and also refused to link to his videos from their Web sites.

After Columbine, KOA radio made a decision not to announce the names of Columbine imitators. This was a responsible practice that ought to be followed by more media (including KOA, which apparently forgot about the old policy).

When the Denver media, including the Rocky,were criticized for their all-out coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey case last year, Rockypublisher John Temple responded by pointing to reader interest, as shown by the spike in RockyWeb site readership.

While the JonBenet coverage offended some people, the risk of inciting copycats was lower. The shortsighted decisions of national and local media this week have increased the already grave danger that someone will attempt to imitate the Virginia Tech killer.


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