The Copycat Question  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   September 1998

The Copycat Question   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      



IN THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES' page one conference on May 21, editors were discussing that day's school shooting in Springfield, Oregon. Editor in Chief Nigel Wade's mind turned to a recent incident in Chicago in which a boy was arrested for plotting to shoot classmates. ``I took pause and began to think there was a cycle feeding off the publicity,'' says Wade. ``I can't prove there's a connection. If there was a danger of that kind, I began to think of breaking the cycle in some way.''
Wade's notion led the paper to run the story on pages two and three, not on the front page, with a page one explanation directing readers to the coverage. Though not every staff member sided with Wade's notion, he says his phone was ``ringing off the hook the next morning,'' particularly with calls from parents and teachers ``relieved that a newspaper had taken this approach and taken the children into account.''
Readers weren't the only ones calling with commendations--so were many of Wade's journalism collegues. The New York Times invited Wade to write a column on the paper's break from tradition, and Wade wrote about the positive reader response in the Sun-Times.
But despite the praise for running the story inside, questions remain: Should the media be concerned about the danger of copycat violence? How much influence does the press have over teenagers' behavior, and should news organizations adjust their coverage in the face of possible reaction?
As for the copycat question, ``I think the jury is still out,'' says Michele McLellan, public editor at Portland's Oregonian. She's not alone in holding that view.
``I haven't really seen any good research that shows that yes, the copycat phenomenon is real in any way,'' says LynNell Hancock, director of the Prudential Fellowship for Children and the News. ``I think it's wishful thinking that we think children watch the news and read the news and really think that's where they're going to gain their own personal validity.''
James Garbarino, director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, knows only of research that was done on the effect of media coverage on suicides. He says the bigger concern should be of the impact of coverage of violence in general. ``There's an overall effect,'' he says. ``A greater exposure to violent images, and the likelihood for violent behavior increases.'' In Garbarino's talks with kids, he does see some acting out scenes they've seen many times on entertainment television programs, but not typically those from news coverage.
While many journalists remain concerned about copycat violence, the media can't simply ignore big national news. Says Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Oregonian: ``We wrote about that [the copycat effect] and thought about that. We felt we had to report what we had to report.''
Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, acknowledges that the consequences of coverage shouldn't be ignored. But, he adds: ``You cannot keep the news from the public at large.... You would be remiss if you didn't report it.''
The key, says McLellan, is in covering the events in an informative way that ``does the least to somehow glorify that behavior or reward that behavior.''
News organizations should also be careful not to overplay subsequent stories on violence in the aftermath of high-profile spasms of violence at schools, says Scott Kraft, the Los Angeles Times' national editor. Just because there was a shooting in Oregon, he says, the paper shouldn't make big news out of a kid bringing a gun to school in L.A.
At the Sun-Times, Wade says he'd cover future school shootings in the same way unless they occurred in Chicago. But without a strong correlation drawn between media coverage and copycat violence, newspapers' approaches will most likely vary, with no one path heralded as correct.
``It is possible to report meaningfully and fairly on these issues with sensitivity, while still recognizing the concerns over the contagion effect,'' says Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. ``But both decisions [running the story on page one or inside] can be ethically justifiable and journalistically sound.''

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