Note: This is a piece I first posted at Echidne of the Snakes in October, 2006. It is reposted here, today, for obvious reasons. How many of us can name any of those involved in this previous mass murder How many of us can name those in the mass murders that have happened since then?
In the news coverage of the murders of the school girls in Pennsylvania there was talk about the similarities between the actions of the murderer and those of the man who took hostages and murdered a school girl in Colorado the week before. One report I heard went into quite a lot of detail about the similarities, a lot more detail than could have been useful to their audience. They’ve got to fill those 24 hours with something. I guess. But, considering what they were saying about copy-cat crime, you would think that it might have occurred to them that a particular segment of their audience might have found their descriptions very useful. I wonder why none of them seemed to think it was possible that some murderer of the near or distant future might have found their information quite instructive.
What is the use of crime reporting? It shouldn’t be useful for the trial, that’s certainly not the role of reporters but of police and prosecutors. Nancy Grace might be confused about that but real reporters shouldn’t be. Ideally jurors wouldn’t have heard any news reporting that could prejudice their decision about the evidence presented in trial. The right to a fair trial, both for the accused and the public, is clearly more important than whatever right the casual observer has to know most of the details as soon as possible.
There is some public interest served in reporting some facts of these crimes. The public needs to know that crimes are being committed and the nature of those crimes especially if the criminal is still at large. But there is a level of detail that goes past what is needed and risks becoming prurient or even dangerous.
Most people can listen to the sordid details and speculations generated by the cabloids with only their character damaged but pretending they are the only ones who could be listening is willful ignorance. The old justification for allowing pornography was true, most people who consume it don’t imitate it. But a study of the effects on the general population wouldn’t show much that was useful. It is the people who do commit horrible crimes who need to be studied. Where did they get the ideas for their crimes, especially those that don’t seem to be original ideas. What is the copy-cat effect of the crime shows on TV?
Is there a significant effect? Are there people susceptible to imitating the crimes spelled out in such loving detail on A&E and Discovery? On the cabloid news stations? And if there is an effect proven beyond a preponderance of the evidence what use should be made of that fact? I don’t know.
But since they are the ones who are always talking about copy-cat murderers don’t they have a responsibility to take that into account when they are structuring their dramatic recitations of these crimes? They certainly do write the shows for dramatic effect, to follow a saleable narrative. Can they make them profitable and responsible at the same time? Maybe they need to look for a good model of responsible reporting. They won’t find much of that on American TV outside of Bill Moyers.