In the days after the Littleton shooting, Robert Giles, director of the Freedom Forum’s Media Studies Center, issued a press release decreeing that— a year after the utterly excessive and inane coverage of the school yard massacre in Jonesboro, Arkansas— news organizations were being “more fair” than the previous year. They had taken a “more sensitive approach to interviewing students,” he said, and had “avoided jumping to conclusions” about the causes of the tragedy. Only one real failing, the release noted: “news outlets still seem overeager in reporting the number of casualties.” Otherwise, all was well. “These observations reflect a recognition that the public increasingly holds the press accountable for its performance and at least in early reporting, the press appears to be responding by being more responsible.”
Press Clips wonders if Giles is, as one of our colleagues suggested, “on the pipe.”
It’s a bit much to consider it “fair and sensitive” of MSNBC to cut from an interview with a surviving student who described tending to a mortally wounded teacher, to commentator-cum-opportunist Pat Buchanan, who blasted American youth culture as debased. It seems at least in bad taste, if not offensive, for networks to crow over ratings spikes for such a tragedy. And when The Washington Post reports that “in political tracts and other elements of the conspiratorial imagination, trench coats serve as a symbol for things from Hitler and the Nazis to mass murder to suicidal fantasies,” one really has to wonder whether it could lead to errant conclusions about youth who hide nothing more malignant than quiet affinities for thrift stores or a John Wooinspired milieu.
But what astounds most about Giles’s assessment is his failure to mention that for the most part, news organizations haven’t bothered to talk to any of the nation’s actual expert researchers on the subject of mass murder, nor have they done the responsible thing based on a finding on which those researchers agree— that when it comes to the causes of mass murder, while culture is undeniably a factor, the most salient media isn’t entertainment, but news.
When workplace mass murders began to rise about 10 years ago, reporters like The Washington Post‘s Curt Suplee and The New York Times‘s Fox Butterfield sought out the handful of people who have devoted their professional lives to studying these morbid occurrences. As journalists discovered, researchers had found that mass murderers could be categorized: those who killed their families, those who turned on their workplaces, and paramilitary enthusiasts who took out random citizens in public places. Despite the categorical differences, the investigators found the offenders were essentially the same— socially isolated men whose myriad frustrating experiences were complemented by mental disorders. Legitimate feelings of marginalization and being pushed around were exacerbated by an externalizing of responsibility. Almost all manifested outward signs of deterioration— and even openly planned their crime— but weren’t taken seriously; almost all either turned their guns on themselves or opted for “suicide by cop.”
In this case, however, the likes of Suplee and Butterfield weren’t anywhere near Littleton, and Post and Times editors apparently didn’t bother to do a quick Nexis search. If they had, according to Northeastern University professor and mass murder researcher Jack Levin, they would have grasped that in the context of what’s known about mass murder, the Klebold-Harris rampage was par for the course. “They were just like their older counterparts— this was the teenage equivalent of a workplace massacre,” says Levin, who’s concerned that the coverage of the Littleton shootings is lending itself to scapegoating youth and perpetuating false notions about the causes of this and similar shootings. “I’m getting tired of people blaming popular culture, and by spending so much time interviewing psychiatrists who work with kids, we emphasize an individual-level explanation for something that’s more complex.”
Indeed, it’s not as if mass murder— adolescent or otherwise— is a uniquely American phenomenon; according to journalist Antonio Mendoza, reporters have missed the opportunity for perspective thanks to international myopia. “Not only are all these killers similar, despite their ages, but they’re all over the world. I haven’t seen anyone reference a number of recent young mass murderers in Russia,” says Mendoza, who relentlessly tracks and reports on global mass murders and serial killings for his Internet Crime Archives (www.mayhem.net). “And guess what the deal is with those kids? Russian army conscripts who crack after being jazzed and humiliated by their peers. I’ve noted in a lot of cases Hitler-Nazi obsessions— not really out of political neo-Nazi beliefs,” he says, but based on the twisted mix of outcast-turned-übermensch that Hitler embodies.
Mendoza adds that press examination of mass murders in Australia and New Zealand might have been useful as well. “But instead of focusing on what matters, the press focuses on stuff that’s of no consequence. There’s more talk about how this is all movies’ and Marilyn Manson’s fault instead of pointing out that, to kids who have no German background, speaking German to one another and going ‘heil Hitler’ is a pretty recognizable sign of a human time bomb.”
But as a wave of copycat incidents and threats spread across the nation’s schools, accusations against Marilyn Manson and Hollywood thrived, along with the standard culture-war carping from the Amen Corner. (In one particularly bizarre moment on CNN’s Larry King Live, actor Yaphet Kotto— whose sole qualification to sound off on Littleton appears to be his role as a police lieutenant on Homicide— blamed the whole thing on the fact that “God is not in the classroom anymore,” and repeated the misinformation, sans reality check from King, that students aren’t allowed to pray.) While coverage of copycat attempts relied on quotes from educators, psychologists, social workers, politicians, and law enforcement officials, virtually unheard from were people like Park Dietz and David Phillips, whose studies have found that news reports— not movies or video games— are the prime media mover in begetting copycats.
“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.”
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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 4, 1999