The copycat effect and responsible media

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The copycat effect and responsible media

The copycat effect is the tendency of sensational publicity about violent murders or suicides to result in more of the same through imitation.

Through the copycat effect, both media companies and private individuals with strong networks can be indirectly responsible for things as terrible as suicide, school shootings, and even terrorism.

The principle of free speech is too important to force the media to be quiet about such topics, but their reliance on sensationalism to make sales is costing lives. What then can realistically be done about this?

A different spin on the story

To fix this problem, the media needs to put a different spin on the story.

The goal here is to portray the crime being committed in a negative fashion, so as to discourage copycats. This depends on the type of crime:

  • Preventing suicide copycats by putting a different spin on it is a phenomenon that is already well-studied: News stories about suicides that cause further suicides are referred to with the term "Werther effect", while news stories that manage to prevent suicides instead are referred to with the term "Papageno effect". All the media has to do is to deliberately aim for the latter.

  • Preventing school shootings is all about understanding the psyche of these children. Given how high schools work, and how literally juvenile students are, just saying that school shooters are gay, no matter how little sense that makes, would in all likelihood cut the number of school shootings in half already. More seriously, to prevent copycats of school shootings, the news need to report less about what a tragedy the event is (which shows students that they can feel empowered by shooting up a school) and more on how much of an asshole the shooter is and how everyone hates him now.

  • Terrorism is essentially also a type of copycat criminality (at least the initial radicalization is). Instead of emphasizing how tragic the attack is (which only reinforces the prospective terrorists' beliefs that this is the way to go), the media needs to present arguments about why the terrorists will go to hell based on their own beliefs. Fortunately, holy books in general are flexible enough that you can argue almost anything if you find the right paragraph. It would also help to get some quotes denouncing the act from people whos' opinion the terrorists actually care about.

Why should the media do this?

The best-laid plan is pointless if you can't get people to follow it. So here is what the media could do so that they actually benefit:

Suppose that media outlet A decides to address the problem of copycat crimes directly and publicly commit to writing its articles in the above style in the future, to prevent copycats. Meanwhile media outlet B continues to report these topics as usual.

The next time such a crime happens, B reports it normally, while A addresses the danger of copycat-through-glorification and dedicates an article to insulting the criminal and/or showing them the error of their way depending on the particular crime.

Media outlet A now gets to create an artificial controversy by publicly calling out media outlet B for contributing to the problem of copycat crime. They get to manufacture an entire new public outrage in which they can rightly present themselves as The Good Guys while any media outlet that does not follow suit can be portrayed as The Bad Guys.

The media companies get more traffic because of increased controversy, the public ends up being better educated, and copycat criminals become less likely. It's win-win.

With careful planning, this could start an instantly-recognizable brand that easily marks an article as "this is written specifically to prevent copycats", similar to hashtags and trigger-warnings.