Monday, May 21, 2018

Ethical Journalism in an Age of Mass Murder

For a long time, there has been strong (overwhelming?) evidence that the media has influence over the number of people who commit suicide.  Called the "copycat effect" or "media contagion," it's basically the idea that when when the media reports on suicide, they influence more people to kill themselves.

"Research into suicide coverage worldwide by journalism ethics charity MediaWise found clear evidence that the attention given to the circumstances surrounding a celebrities who kill themselves is more likely to incite copy cat suicides."

For this reason, the media has best practices for suicide reporting: don't even cover suicides unless it's a noteworthy person, don't glamorize or romanticize it, etc.  This dedication to language best practice is fairly sophisticated - for example, the Associated Press even recently recommended against using the phrase "committed suicide."


Three years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published an article that posited a similarly intuitive (even obvious) theory on mass shootings.  I'll just quote his main point here:

"But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store."

The media's endless coverage of every mass murder is driving copycats...and no one is doing anything about it.  It's not that journalists individually know this and are OK with it - they're just trapped in a system that is designed to drive clicks and views, and endless coverage of mass murder is a profitable way to do that.  A better summary of this situation is made here.

We now have a stack of voices naming this out loud in the Washington Post, Federalist, Criminologists, Ethical Journalism Network, etc.


So, what to do?  There are many great, thoughtful proposals out there - here's one from the Columbia Journalism Review.  The gist is that we can still responsibly cover mass murder - driving awareness, resources, policy change, prevention, and free flow of information in our democracy - but limit the media contagion.  We can do this by not printing the person's name, picture, manifestos/ravings/message, or comparing kill counts.  Phrases like "deadliest shooting spree" or "gunman" create a morbid romanticism, even a gamification in a dark mind.

Another proposal is to call on the media to de-monetize coverage of mass murders.  Selling ads by spreading media contagion is a bit like selling soup prepared by Typhoid Mary.

We need a website written by respected authorities in journalism laying out these proposals. We need politicians to use their voice to raise the issue, we need grassroots boycotts for advertisers who buy ads on media that refuse to report responsibly.

Our journalists generally feel their work is a vocation, not just a job.  They're proud of the role they play in the nation's well-being and advancement, and I'm sure it's horrifying for a person to realize they're part of this morbid feedback loop - more murders, more coverage, more murders.  Just conjecture here, perhaps part of the reason journalists are so ardent in their support of gun control as a solution to mass murder is that they're aware of their role, and are looking for a scapegoat to restore their feeling of "the good guy." 

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