Crucial Conversations

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The Media Is an Accomplice in School Shootings

A call for a “Stephen King” law

I have watched in horror with most of America as the stories of the Chardon High School and Oikos University shootings unfolded. But my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath, hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.
 
But they did.
 
They did exactly what was needed to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.
1.       They named the shooter.
2.       They described his characteristics.
3.       They detailed the crime.
4.       They numbered the victims.
5.       They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.
 
School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.
 
There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influences copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Contrast this trend with no increase in suicides in the week following a media strike that unintentionally suppresses such coverage.
 
The same is true of school massacres. On Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 1996 a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates and severely wounded another student. Subsequent media coverage obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of Feb 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. Yet another on March 13. Along with other similarities, more than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource.
 
Of course, when the Rage pattern became clear, the media scurried to get King’s reaction. King could have defended his right to free speech and used the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument—claiming the problem was the perpetrators’ mental health not his book.
 
But he didn’t. He apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter.
 
The media appropriately defends its right to participate fully in a marketplace of ideas. The risk of limiting free speech is clear and substantial. And yet I believe when free speech leads to verifiable harm, it’s time to discuss limits. It’s time we found a way to balance the right to speak freely with the responsibility to influence ethically. It’s time we consider passing a law that requires the media to act with Stephen King’s level of responsibility.
 
We need to discuss the merits and morality of a law. I don’t suggest a broad one—but one that matches responsibility with influence. It’s already illegal to use free speech to incite others to criminal acts—there are laws against shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater for example. So if we know that a particular kind of speech is inciting violence, how can we appropriately limit it without creating a slippery slope that infringes on our constitutional rights?
 
It’s time our media leaders wake up to the fact that they are not just reporting these crimes. Depending on how they report them, they are accomplices in them. It is also time our legislators consider taking up this task. We need to match responsibility with influence.

Joseph Grenny is a behavior change expert, four-time New York Times best-selling author, and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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