Accuracy in Media

When shooting incidents occur, the media point the finger of blame at guns and the second amendment. But they may want to point the finger at themselves and at the first amendment. One of the nation?s leading experts on violence and aggression says the evidence is clear that the media have played a role in the recent wave of shootings in the U.S. Asked point-blank whether the media bear some of the blame, Dr. Leonard Berkowitz stated directly that “they have a minor contributing role, inadvertent though it has been. They do have an influence just in reporting the stories.”

How does simple coverage encourage more violence? Berkowitz, who has been studying this matter for more than 40 years, says this is a “fairly frequently observed phenomenon… Basically, people in the audience who are susceptible to influence get ideas from what they read, what they see [and] what they hear. If their inhibitions are low, if they?re ready to act violently, they can act on those ideas. This is a fairly general phenomenon. It?s been happening for years.”

He says this has been observed going back to the end of the 19th century, when coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders in England led to a rash of copycat crimes. Other highly publicized violent incidents, such as the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination and the 1966 arrest of Richard Speck for killing eight student nurses, also led to rises in violent crime.

Dr. Berkowitz, a psychologist who recently retired from the University of Wisconsin, has written several academic papers and books on the subject of aggression. He says excessive media coverage surrounding violent incidents is a factor in promoting more of them. Observing the media coverage of the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, Dr. Berkowitz said he figured that more violence and more such incidents were going to occur. This is for two reasons. One, as noted, some people get ideas that they can commit such crimes. And second, saturation coverage – that is, covering the same story over and over again increases the chances that such incidents will occur.

An obvious answer to this problem is to give less media attention to these incidents, such as the Littleton shootings. Less coverage would have been a “positive step,” the professor says. He says one thing the media can do is stop covering these violent incidents in a dramatic manner, like the movies do. Such coverage raises the odds that more violence will occur.

On the other hand, he grants that the media “have to report the news” and that more violence can be considered an inevitable result. He suggests the media cover these incidents by condemning these actions. “But even that won?t be the complete answer,” he says. He points out that the JFK assassination was both covered and strongly condemned by the media but was nevertheless followed by more violent crimes for about a month. In addition to media self-control, Berkowitz says youngsters have to be taught that violent behavior is not acceptable or desirable. He also suggests that violent video games and films be strongly criticized and condemned.