Thursday, September 16, 2004
Sinister form of flattery " 'The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines' (Paraview Pocket Books, $14).

Coleman, 57, lives in Portland and has been working in the mental health field for more than 35 years. He's a former senior researcher at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Policy and has written or edited more than 20 books, including 'Suicide Clusters' in 1987.

Q: Besides the sheer number of violent acts that are similar, what is the most persuasive evidence you found that media coverage triggers violence?

A: What I did was take the research studies, done from the 1960s through the 1990s, in which people tracked reports in the media and then tracked what kind of causal effect they had in three days, one week, one month. I decided to take this very dry research and put it together with actual cases.

Kurt Cobain's suicide, for instance. There were 70 or 80 other (suicides) modeled after it. People picking the same day, or leaving notes saying they 'did it for Kurt.'

There's much more coverage of these things, on cable news, Fox and MSNBC. With coverage of the school shootings, they (the shooters) might have done something more quietly, killed themselves. But they've seen so much coverage, and that's become the model for school shootings.

We know that in the year after 9/11, with much less coverage of domestic (instances of) violence, there were no workplace rampages and no school shootings.

In Vienna, they had a rash of subway suicides. They did a newspaper blackout (no reporting on the suicides) and they decreased an enormous amount.

I'm not out for censorship, but the wall-to-wall coverage and graphic depictions (of violence) can really get to vulnerable people.

Q: What sorts of violence are the most copied?

A: The ones the media report on most. There's not a lot of (reporting) on elder suicides, or quiet terminal illness suicides. Bank robberies are pretty much ignored now.

There were shootings at schools before Columbine, but they were people who weren't part of the school community. And there had been urban crime, urban African-Americans killing each other.

But the media didn't really catch on until you had white boys in rural or suburban areas killing girls and teachers. Why are white boys more exciting for the media? To appeal to a a larger audience?

I'm not at all kind to the media in the book. I basically say they are using death to sell soap and SUVs.

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