To report or not to report: Is the media encouraging acts of violence?

Recent media coverage of several horrifying and shocking crimes has sparked debate over whether some of these reports could possibly be encouraging copycat crimes.

Police investigate a stabbing at a retail clothing store in Colorado Springs, CO Photo: TJ Larson
Police investigate a stabbing at a clothing store in Colorado Springs, CO
Photo: TJ Larson

There has been much discussion in chat forums and other social media about how much attention should be given to incidents like the shootings of unarmed black men by police and reports on militant black organizations such as the New Black Panther Party who are calling for retaliation against law enforcement in their wake.

Some say that the publicity given to these groups have led to a string of incidents where police have been ambushed and sometimes killed, the most recent being the execution-style murder of Texas officer, Darren Goforth. Goforth was killed in uniform while pumping gas into his patrol vehicle.

Among the topics discussed is the way the media presents these incidents. Some have said that the media often portray the perpetrators of major crimes as celebrities. Many have also expressed displeasure with continuous coverage given to these incidents, while others focus on the detail given to how they took place.

Obviously, an article giving a detailed description of how a bomb used in a terror attack was assembled, would not be appropriate but how much information should the media provide to the public? How much coverage and how long should it address a given incident? How can the media strike a balance between public need to know without offending some people or compromising public safety?

Most importantly, who should decide how much information should be disseminated to the public?

Most media outlets have “gatekeepers” who ultimately decide what is published and what is not. There is much debate on this practice. Detractors correctly point out that gatekeeping is simply a form of censorship.

Very little news reaches the public from media outlets completely raw and untouched. Editors review and sometimes alter reports for various reasons and there are other processes that decide what is newsworthy.

So we see that most news already has to pass a filtration process before it is made publicly available.

Conversely, a 1999 study from The JAMA Network, formerly the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine determined that there is a relationship between copycat crimes and the amount of media coverage the initial incident receives. The study concluded that there was a spike in copycat crimes when there was continuing coverage of a major crime.

Based on this study, researchers recommended that the media “downplay” coverage of shootings, not to portray the killers as “countercultural heroes” and not to describe in detail how the crime was committed.

However, the report also stated that another study by criminologist Ray Surette cautioned that there have not been enough copycat events studied to support APAM’s findings.

Although the news media is specifically named and protected in the Bill of Rights by the First Amendment, this does not mean that it has carte blanche to do whatever it chooses to. Media can and has been barred from court proceedings and does not have the express right to be privy to state secrets or other information deemed vital to national security. This is an ongoing issue being fiercely challenged because it argues that the government often uses the umbrella of national security to shield itself from information that the media contends should fall under the purview of the people’s right to know.

Should the media exercise more restraint when reporting news regardless of how relevant it is to the public? Would downplaying terrible crimes discourage copycats? How would doing so affect important stories? Should it choose not to report on or downplay horrific events similar to the 9/11 attacks or the Sandy Hook massacre for fear deranged individuals will be inspired to commit equally horrible crimes or worse?

Is this controversy a classic example of ignore the message, then blame the messenger? This approach has never served any purpose other than assuage those who prefer not to face the reality of what is being reported to them—as if ignoring something will make it disappear.

In truth, ignoring or downplaying incidents only serves to allow them to propagate. Some of the most atrocious acts in history could have, at the least, been minimized had they not been marginalized and neatly presented to the public.

It is the duty of the media to report the news. It must be free of libelous, defamatory accusations and sensationalism. Above all, it must be accurate and truthful.

So should the media compromise itself by sacrificing its integrity and credibility by holding back important information? Some say that it already has. Is it really inciting psychopaths to take innocent lives in copycat crimes because of what it reports? It is doubtful; especially when there is no shortage of examples to follow from television and other so-called forms of “entertainment” if they are looking for an inspiration to kill.