I’ve been liveblogging the horrifying events in Norway for the last few days. It’s been harrowing and deeply, deeply sad. A man – whether a madman or a coldly sane fanatic is not yet clear – has murdered 76 people, mostly teenagers, for the crime of living in a country that allows immigration. These events have presented something of a moral dilemma for me.
Of course, we have to cover the news. And it would be remiss of us not to report the actions of the killer (I’m going to follow Charlie Brooker’s excellent example and not name him) who has perpetrated the worst act of terrorism on European soil since 2004. But the evidence seems to suggest that the more you cover these actions, the more likely it is that people will emulate them.
A study in 2004 looked into the coverage of the suicide by gun of an Austrian celebrity. The largest Austrian newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, sells widely in the eastern states of the country, but sells little in the west. It reported the suicide closely, while other newspapers gave it little attention. The study, by researchers at Furtbach Hospital for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, found that the number of firearm suicides went up in the areas where the Kronen Zeitung sells well, but not in the areas where it does not.
A more wide-ranging study in 2009, also in Austria, found again that wide reporting of suicides was linked to an increase in similar types of suicide. Another study in Germany found similar results, “consistent with the assumption of imitative effects”.
That’s suicides, of course. Is there any evidence to suggest that the reporting of mass killings increases the likelihood of imitation attacks? Dr Park Deitz, a leading US criminal psychiatrist, says so – he famously lectured Newsnight on the need to reduce the sensationalism of coverage if they wanted to prevent copycat killings after the Winnenden, Germany secondary school massacre in 2009, in which 15 people were killed by a 17-year-old gunman.
He told The Independent: “Here’s my hypothesis. Saturation-level news coverage of mass murder causes, on average, one more mass murder in the next two weeks. It’s not that the news coverage made the person paranoid, or armed, or suicidally depressed, but you’ve got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their lap and a hit list in their mind. They feel willing to die.
“When they watch the coverage of a school shooting or a workplace mass murder, it only takes one or two of them to say – ‘that guy is just like me, that’s the solution to my problem, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow’. The point is that the media coverage moves them a little closer to the action. Is that causation? Legally, maybe not. Epidemiologically, yes.” But I’ve been unable to find research that backs his claim.
That said, it seems reasonable to assume that there is a link between media coverage of a killing and the likelihood of copycats. Certainly in every other walk of life, that seems to be the case: people play more sport when that sport is televised, they buy more cigarettes when cigarettes are advertised.
So what should news outlets do? I honestly don’t know. Should we simply not report major events? Obviously not. Should we assume a tone of constant denigration, calling the killer a loser and a failure, in the hope that it puts others off? Fine for opinion writers, not really okay in reporting.
As I say, it’s a dilemma. We need to cover the news, but it is a horrible thought that we might be encouraging other deranged or evil individuals to kill. All, I think, that we can do is avoid sensationalism, as hard as that is to do in a story as – frankly – sensational as the Norwegian horrors. I hope I – we – have managed to do so.