Johann Hari: Did the media help to pull the trigger?

Saturation-level coverage of mass murder causes, on average, one more mass murder in the next two weeks, says America's leading forensic psychiatrist

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The media has been lasciviously describing every blood-flecked cranny of the shooting incident in Northumbria this week, while blankly ignoring the most important question – did we help to pull the trigger? Every time there is a massacre by a mentally ill person, like Derrick Bird's last month, journalists are warned by psychologists that, if we are not very careful in our reporting, we will spur copycat attacks by more mentally ill people. We ignored their warnings. We reported the case in precisely the way they said was most risky. Are we now seeing the result?

At first, this question will sound baffling. Raoul Moat would obviously have been paranoid, abusive and mentally ill even if newspapers and television had never been invented. He wasn't made this way by reading about Derrick Bird. So what's the media got to do with it?

Dr Park Dietz is America's leading forensic psychiatrist, and he has extensively interviewed many of the country's most notorious mass murderers, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Andrea Yates. His research found that, in a country the size of the US, "saturation-level news coverage of mass murder causes, on average, one more mass murder in the next two weeks". Given Britain's size, that makes Moat's massacre strikingly punctual.

But how can this be? Let's start with two examples of copycat epidemics that have been proven to be triggered by unrestrained media reporting. The first is forgotten now, but was once one of the biggest stories in the world. In 1982, a still unidentified maniac in Chicago placed cyanide capsules in a popular over-the-counter pain remedy. Seven people died. It became the most covered story since the Kennedy assassination – and there were suddenly thousands of copycat cases or threats. By 1986, there were more than 4,000 a year. Each new case made the hysteria balloon further.

Dr Dietz suggested the media coverage had created an epidemic of copycatting. He implored journalists to restrict their coverage of product-tampering to the local area in which it occurred, where it would be presented in a more sober, restrained tone. They finally agreed. Within months, the cases of product-tampering were in dramatic decline. It has virtually stopped since. Who, today, has even heard of it?

The evidence is clearer still when it comes to suicides. We have known for a long time that when the media reports on a high-profile suicide in detail, there will be a significant surge in the suicide rate. In the month after Marilyn Monroe killed herself, the suicide rate in the US rose by 12 percent. There are over 42 scientific studies showing that this is part of a general trend: the more intense and detailed the coverage, the more copycats you create. In the week after an episode of Casualty prominently showed a character taking an overdose, the overdosing rate in Britain rose by 17 per cent.

It works the other way, too: when the media shows restraint in reporting suicide, there is a dramatic decline. For example, from 1983 to 1986 there was a huge rise in people hurling themselves in front of trains on the Vienna subway system. Each jumper provoked a rash of lurid news stories recounting the victim's life at length. Finally the press, urged by the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention, agreed to stop reporting on suicides. Within a year, the rate had fallen by more than 50 per cent, and it has never gone back.

Obviously, the media doesn't make people suicidal: nobody is that distressed by an episode of Casualty. But it does provide people who were already feeling suicidal with several tools – a method for doing it, a role model, and a narrative where suicide seems inevitable and suffering finally ends. This helps to erode their internal resistance. It pushes many that last fatal inch.

Can the same thing happen with mass murderers? We certainly know that mass killings come in clusters so often that more than coincidence is at work. For example, in the year before the Columbine High massacre, there were two threats of shootings in Pennsylvania's schools. In the 50 days after it, there were 354. This pattern seems to hold true in every culture: last August, a schizophrenic janitor in China stabbed 14 children, prompting a huge media telethon-wake. Soon after, a bus driver stabbed 24 kids, a teacher stabbed 16 children, and on and on.

Dr Dietz believes – based on his long experience interviewing mass murderers – that he understands the process at work here. "Mass murderers are almost always depressed to the point of suicide, and angrily blame others for their problems," he tells me. "You've got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their laps and a list of people they hate in their minds. They feel willing to die. When they watch the coverage of a mass murder, one or two will say – 'That guy is just like me! That's the solution to my problem.'... They will say this quite openly to you when you interview them. It's a conscious process ... The massacre seems to offer them both an escape from their unbearable pain, and an opportunity to punish the people they blame for their plight."

Suddenly, they are shown a path where their problems won't be trivial and squalid and pointless. No: they'll be the talk of the entire country. They'll be stars.

The way we report these cases can make that man more likely to charge out of his house to kill, or less. The psychologists say that currently we are adopting the most dangerous tactics possible. We put the killer's face everywhere. We depict him exactly as he wanted, broadcasting his videos and reading out his missives. We make his story famous. We present killing as its logical culmination. We soak him in glamour: look at the endless descriptions of Moat as "having a hulking physique" and being "a notorious hard man". We present the killer as larger than life, rather than the truth: that these people are smaller than life, leading pitiful, hate-filled existences.

What's the alternative? The American Psychological Association, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, suggested some simple guidelines. Don't show the killer's face, or incessantly repeat his name. Don't repeat any of his manifestos or grievances. (They're always tedious drivel anyway.) Don't glamorise him. Don't offer up a 24/7 drumbeat of excitement. Report the facts soberly, and, where there must be coverage, lead with the victims. Make them human. We should hear the name of Chris Brown, the man he murdered, more than Raoul Moat's. Tell us about him. In general: play down the coverage. Don't give the killer what he wanted.

Yes, in an internet age, it's hard to keep these things totally out of the public view – but we know from the suicide studies that sheer quantity and repetition and prominence can make all the difference. If the killer's name and face and ravings are tucked away on some obscure site, it's far less dangerous than having him smirking down at us from every media outlet in the country.

Is this so hard? Journalists do exercise self-restraint sometimes: we could publish, say, the route the Prime Minister's children take to school, but because that would be foolishly risky and serve no public interest, we don't. Doesn't this fall into the same category? Shouldn't the Press Complaints Commission develop strict guidelines now so we don't run this same slaughter-script next time?

If we don't, we will be making a cold calculation – that flashier front pages and extra revenue in a slow summer is more important to us than saving innocent lives. Is the British media more interested in making a killing than in preventing one?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'The Copycat Effect', by Loren Coleman (Paraview Books, 2004)

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