Paper-Thin Reporting

"There's sort of an agreed-to conspiracy on all sides in cases like this: the media needs experts, and experts are willing to pretend to be experts, and everyone feels better after the terrifying thing has been explained," sighs the University of California San Diego's Phillips, who says he's still wondering if anyone will call him. In one pioneering study, Phillips found that not only did single- driver car crashes increase after publicized suicides, and multiple-fatality crashes increase after mass murder­suicides, but the numbers seemed to have a relationship to the style and saturation of media coverage. In another investigation, UCLA's Dietz (arguably the nation's top criminal forensic psychiatrist) found that suicide, product tampering, and mass murder lent themselves to imitation, and that the degree of imitation was inspired by sustained and sensationalized media coverage.

"I actually wrote a long series of suggested guidelines for the World Health Organization that would make stories like this less likely to be imitated without making it so the stories disappeared from the paper, or how to cover, but reduce," says Phillips. "You have to think of these stories as a sort of advertisement for mass murder. The more alternatives you give in coverage to the act, the less likely you are to see the act imitated."

There were, to be sure, a handful of exceptions in the coverage of Littleton: though US News & World Report brutally whittled it down for space, Anna Mulrine's examination of research on bullies was informative and insightful, as was CBS's 60 Minutes II interview with another juvenile mass murderer. Overall, though, it seems Klebold and Harris got exactly the postmortem celebrity they wanted. And even though school yard mass murders are comparatively rare and juvenile homicide rates are down, coverage of Littleton— like Jonesboro and others before it— has resulted in calls for metal detectors and security forces to be deployed at schools across the country, something Levin says is "the last thing schools need."

But no matter. As Seattle Times TV columnist Kay McFadden astutely observed last week, "In striving to beat the pants off the competition, most seemed to forget that being a news leader incurs responsibility— and sometimes blame."


Barr None

Long an opportunity for star-gazing at the media and entertainment glitterati, the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is rarely dull. The most amusing scenes this year, however, were on Connecticut Avenue outside the Washington Hilton, where the affair is held. In front of the hotel last Saturday night, individuals from the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy handed out fliers critical of the Clinton administration's Kosovo policy, while a block down, a bevy of conservative protesters lit into Clinton for everything from rape to corruption to foreign policy ineptitude.

Later on, when police began to harass both left- and right-wing protesters whom police had forcibly consolidated onto one corner, Representative Bob Barr strode down and rescued a protester from an overzealous policewoman's grasp. Upon being informed Barr was a congressman, the police backed off. "Never in a million years," said a lefty critical of Clinton, "did I expect Bob Barr would be coming to my rescue."

Cynthia Cotts is on leave for the month of May.

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