The mass murder of twenty first grade children and six adults in Newtown Connecticut was a tragedy beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, the news media is unintentionally increasing the odds that a copycat mass murderer will duplicate the massacre in another school. Since the Newtown shootings on Friday, December 15, 2012, at least three people have been arrested for threatening to enter schools and kill students and faculty. How many more are watching the unending television coverage of this event and dreaming of their “15 minutes of fame?”
Let me say up front that I am not a mental health professional. However, as an attorney for many years and as a former police officer, I have dealt with numerous mentally unstable people. A shared belief with a large percentage of these people is that society, or some identifiable segment thereof, has treated them unfairly. The majority of these folks did not exhibit any tendency towards violence or revenge, but a few made it clear that they felt some form of retribution was an order, even though they stopped short of making actual threats. The bitterness and antisocial behavior seems to be more prominent in people who feel they are ignored or belittled by the society they have come to fear or despise.
My experience is consistent with information provided by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals in response to prior mass murders at schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls. The combination of feelings of rejection and/or ridicule coupled with feelings of inadequacy is potentially deadly. Many of these people feel that they have nothing to live for and a small percentage of them want to make society take notice that they exist. In their demented minds, the best way to accomplish that is to slaughter innocent people. They believe that becoming a mass murderer will ensure that they have more than merely 15 minutes of fame. Indeed, the higher the body count and the more innocent and defenseless the victims, the more television coverage they will enjoy. Their names and faces will be on televisions and newspapers worldwide.
While the news media does not intend to encourage copycat killers by the extensive media coverage provided such events, they are fully aware of the facts set out in the preceding paragraphs. Countless psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have previously been interviewed by the very networks and television stations that are currently broadcasting constant reports about the Newtown massacre. During these interviews, the motivation for fame or merely recognition of their existence is commonly cited as the factor that triggered prior mass murderers. While there is no “intent” in the legal sense, the media is knowingly engaging in actions that increase the likelihood that someone else will follow in Adam Lanza’s footsteps.
How many Adam Lanzas are sitting at home glued to their television watching the incessant media coverage of the Newtown tragedy? How many realize that the level of society’s grief and the amount of media coverage is directly related to the age, innocence, and helplessness of the first grade children that were slaughtered? How many will be prompted to launch their own murderous attacks and to target elementary schools to gain the same level of infamy heaped on Adam Lanza by the media?
Many years ago the big three television networks viewed their newsrooms as public service operations. Unfortunately, this philosophy changed and news broadcasts are also subject to Nielsen ratings. With this change came the tendency not to merely report but to seek out the most titillating events that could be found. This philosophy is not limited to the big three television networks any longer; it is pervasive throughout the media industry.
The sad truth is sex and blood sells and the media are willing to exploit society’s blood lust. Oh, we shake our heads in disgust at the thought that ancient Romans would have made a sport out of gladiatorial combat or gruesome public executions in the Coliseum, but society is still intrigued by violent death.
Adam Lanza pulled the trigger but the media shares responsibility for the murder of 20 innocent children and six adults trying to protect those students. Based on extensive media coverage of prior school shootings, there can be no doubt that Adam Lanza was aware that his actions were going to make his name a household word.
Let’s do something about this! Light up the switchboards, web pages and Facebook accounts for every media outlet with demands to stop the media coverage that serves to encourage others to commit these heinous acts. Let them know that the blood of the next child will be on their hands.
I wish I were naïve enough to believe that such actions would bring about a responsible change on the part of the American media. Sadly, I know better but I can no longer sit back and do nothing while the media essentially conducts classes on how to become the next media darling.