Every time a tragedy like this one happens, all communication outlets turn their spotlights to the case. However, this media exposure often focuses more on the aggressors than the victims
On Wednesday (13), two young men made a massacre in a learning institution in the city of Suzano, in the metropolitan region of São Paulo. The episode resulted in the death of ten people, including the shooters – one of them shot the other before committing suicide.
Every time a tragedy, like this one in the Raul Brasil state school, happens, all communication outlets turn their spotlights to the case. However, this media exposure often focuses more on the aggressors than the victims.
In a similar way to what happens in the coverage of suicides, there is evidence that this exposure could encourage other people, and studies have pointed out that the media coverage on massacres may favor the appearance of new cases.
As British writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next.” In Brazil, there were two shooting episodes in lesser-known schools, in Salvador in 2002 and Taiúva (SP) in 2003. However, since the Realengo tragedy, which happened in 2011 and had a broad media coverage, two cases preceded Suzano in a small period of time: one happened in João Pessoa, in 2012, another one in Goiânia, in 2017, and yet another one in Medianeira, in the state of Paraná, in 2018. At the time, several hypotheses were raised by the press about the aggressor’s motivation – and ended up “humanizing him”.
Exposure and encouragement
This tendency of criminal profiles to repeat behaviors of serial killers is called “copycat effect”. The term became popular after the release of the book ‘The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines’ in 2004. The most symbolic case indicated by experts was the Columbine massacre.
In eight of the twelve biggest school shootings in the United States which happened in the eight years after Columbine, the shooters made explicit references to Harris and Klebold, the aggressors at the Colorado school. An investigation made by ABC News found out that, in the 14 years after Columbine, at least 17 school shooters – and 36 other students who threatened attacks that were eventually foiled – made clear their influence on their attacks.
At the occasion, in April 1999, the extensive coverage of both shooters, of their planning and organization of the attack and their own manifestos made them famous. Two decades after the episode, other shooters became known as “Columbiners”, followers who made their reference explicit. The Suzano tragedy itself has a lot of similarities with the Columbine massacre.
Such episodes reveal the danger of giving publicity to these attacks – this exposure may encourage other disturbed young people seeking fame. When they find out that this works, they are prone to reproduce these episodes. As Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California, we should not underestimate how much these individuals believe they are able to capitalize on their virtual exposure.
There are studies showing that a mass shooting increases the probability of new incidents happening in the future, not only in the short run, but in the long run as well. Therefore, there are serious consequences in making these teenagers famous.
Child and adolescence psychiatrist Gustavo Estanislau warns that there is not the same amount of studies and information on mass killings as there is on suicides, for instance. Therefore, some caution is necessary.
“Literature does not have a consensus yet on the size of influence, but it is indicating that yes, this effect does exist. People who commit this kind of crime are not in their best mental health, and that is why they are seeking some form of attention. When the media gives them that attention, sometimes in a completely disproportional way, other individuals experiencing the same needs may see in it a logic to get what they want.”
Regarding healthy and ordinary people, the author of ‘Saúde Mental na Escola’ (“Mental Health in School”) emphasizes that his perception is that people with good mental health have a better critical sense, and a better expectation of obtaining the attention they desire in other ways.
After the detection of the copycat effect, movements in the United States began to defend that the media should stop granting exposure to school shooters, pressuring for changes on reports of these cases.
Among the recommendations made by campaigns such as No Notoriety and Don’t Name Them, are limiting the publication of the name and photo of the authors of these attacks, not to publicize or broadcast material produced by them (such as posts in social networks). According to them, the press should merely report what happened, giving emphasis to the victims, survivors, and individuals who helped those survivors, avoiding showing those responsible for the incidents or naming them.
Gustavo Estanislau sustains that in the existing studies there aren’t always such clear conclusions on what would be best regarding media coverage. “Despite that, the literature on the subject has been pointing out in that direction, recommending that the name of the aggressors should not be frequently mentioned, and, when mentioned, it should be done in a subtle way, without detailing the episode too much: as much as the episode is important, the aggressors shouldn’t be elevated to a status of fame. Exposing the type of weapon and the number of shots fired is a kind of detail that does not add anything to the public, and is also not interesting from a point of view of public health.”
Campaigns such as the one given by US authorities have already shown themselves to be effective, and we have witnessed US newsrooms focusing more on victims than in the killers.
Other possible causes
Psychiatrist Ivan Mario Braun says that the precise causes which drive people to commit shootings and mass murders, besides political or financial motivations. “There are several factors which condition the occurrence of these kinds of behavior are multiple, and learning based on other episodes is probably just one of them.”
He clarifies that among the factors involved are social tension (professional failure, lack of acceptance, and bullying), as well as the existence of places with a large concentration of people, making it easier to cause more damage and obtain a bigger exposure.
Braun also points out the factor of the lack of family and social ties which might be able to curb violent acts, as well as a biological predisposition. He doesn’t rule out the involvement of a desire for notoriety in some cases.
Vice-president of the Republic Hamilton Mourão attributed a possible influence of videogames for the tragedy in Suzano, something which the psychiatrist disagrees. “Even though the exposure to violent videogames is associated to the desensitization to violence and damages to the behavioral development, there is no definitive evidence that it is a causal factor in the development of violent behavior among young people.”
Bullying, another commonly raised hypothesis, makes academic sense for Estanislau. “Studies have shown that in several events of this type there was bullying involved, but this attempt to try to establish a profile after these cases is delicate and dangerous. Each situation is different, and we cannot attempt to simplify complex issues. Besides, it should be clarified that most bullying cases are solved without the need for an extreme situation.”
Ivan Mario Braun points out that due to the ample available literature on suicide, the World Health Organization concluded that the press should be careful when discussing these kinds of acts, and suggested some guidelines for its discussion in public media, such as educating the public regarding the practice, avoiding sensationalist language or treating it naturally, as well as avoiding the explicit description of the method used in a suicide attempt or a consumed suicide, among others.
“Even though there are recommendations along those lines regarding mass shootings, the WHO still doesn’t have such guidelines,” according to the expert, probably because the number of studies regarding the issue is still incipient.
Attack on the freedom of the press?
Critics of the No Notoriety and Don’t Name Them campaigns in the United States argue that they undermine the public’s right to be fully informed about important events.
Some argue that limiting reports about the details regarding a mass murder could be harmful to parents and family members in identifying traces of the intention to commit crimes among young people, something which could help them to seek police and/or medical help and prevent new cases.
There is also the criticism that, by restricting from the public certain information, it will be more difficult to provide solid political answers.
It is not about restricting freedom of the press, however, but merely understanding the ethical limitations of journalism, and doing what is more adequate to the public health.
READ IT IN PORTUGUESE:
Nesta quarta-feira (13), dois jovens realizaram um massacre em uma instituição de ensino da cidade de Suzano, região metropolitana de São Paulo. O episódio resultou na morte de dez pessoas, incluindo os atiradores — um baleou o outro antes de se suicidar.