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Conflict & Tragedy

To report or not to report: Is the news media encouraging acts of violence?

The news media have recently reported on several horrific and shocking crimes, sparking debate over whether it could possibly be encouraging copycat threats.

There has been much discussion in chat forums and other social media about how much attention should be given to incidents such as the Aurora movie theater shooting and, most recently, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

Among the topics being discussed is the manner in which the media presents these occurrences. Some have said that the media treats the perpetrators of these crimes like celebrities. Many have expressed displeasure with the continuous coverage given to these incidents, while others focus on the detail given to how they took place. It is obvious that reports giving detailed descriptions of how a bomb was assembled that was used in a terror attack, would likely not be appropriate for the general public.

However, how much information should the media provide to the public? How much coverage and how long should it address a given incident? How can the media strike a balance between the public need to know without offending the sensibilities of some people or compromising public safety?

Most importantly, who should decide when and how much information should be disseminated to the general public?

As any journalist will attest, most media outlets have what are known as "gatekeepers" who ultimately decide what news is published and what is not. There has even been debate on this practice. Detractors say that gatekeeping is simply a form of censorship, and they are correct in their observation. Very little news that reaches the public from media outlets arrives completely raw and untouched. Editors review and sometimes alter reports for various reasons, and there are also other processes that determine what is newsworthy.

So now we see that news reported even from the most liberal outlets is usually reviewed before it is made available.

It should be pointed out that although the news media is specifically named and protected in the Bill of Rights by the First Amendment, this does not mean that it has carte blanche to do whatever it chooses to. It can and has been barred from court proceedings and it does not have the express right to be privy to state secrets or any information deemed vital to national security. This is an issue that has been fiercely challenged on several occasions because it is argued that the government often uses the umbrella of national security to shield itself from information that the media contends should fall under the purview of the people's right to know.

A prime example of this is the information allegedly provided by whistleblower, US Army Spc. Bradley Manning. While Manning was hailed as a hero by some, he was branded as a traitor and enemy of the US by the government and many Americans as well.

On a slightly different note, there is an article from The Lookout that cites a 1999 study from the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. According to The Lookout, the study found a relationship between the amount of copycat threats and the amount of media coverage the initial incident received. The study concluded that there was a spike in copycat threats when there was continuing coverage of a major crime.

Based on this study the researchers recommended that the media "downplay" coverage of shootings, not to portray the killers as "countercultural heroes" and not to describe in detail how the crime was committed.

Conversely, the report also stated that another study by criminologist Ray Surette cautioned that there have not been enough copycat events studied to support APAM's findings.

Should the media exercise more restraint when reporting news regardless of how relevant it is to the public? Would downplaying terrible crimes discourage copycats? How would doing so affect important stories?

If the media begins to water down the news by limiting the facts of the events, where would it stop? Should it choose not to report on or downplay a heinous event such as the Sept. 11 attacks or the Sandy Hook massacre for fear that some deranged individual will be inspired to commit an equally horrible crime or worse?

What we seem to have here is a classic example of ignore the message, then blame and kill the messenger. As many of us know, this approach has never served any purpose other than assuage those who prefer not to face the reality of what is being reported to them, as if ignoring something will make it disappear.

In truth we know that ignoring and downplaying certain things only serve to allow them to propagate. Some of the most atrocious acts in history could have, at the least, been minimized if they had not been marginalized and neatly presented to the public.

It is the duty of the media to report the news. It must be free of libelous, defamatory accusations, and above all, it must be as accurate as possible.

Should the media compromise itself? Should it sacrifice its integrity and credibility by holding back important information?

So is the media inciting psychopaths to take the lives of innocents in copycat crimes because of what it reports? It is very doubtful; especially when there is no shortage of examples for them to follow from television and other so-called forms of "entertainment" if they are looking for an inspiration to kill.