by Sarah Mensch
The Columbine High School Massacre in 1999 resulted in the deaths of twelve students, a teacher, and two shooters. Most recall that April day and feel sorrow, grief, fear. Such is not the case for the 74 people who planned their own shootings inspired by the Columbine massacre in 30 different states since the 1999 shooting . Twenty-one of those planners were successful in their plots, killing 89 more people, and injuring 16 others; nine of the perpetrators themselves died in the attacks.
These post-Colombine attacks reflect a phenomenon dubbed “copycat crimes,” in which prospective perpetrators are so in awe of a homicidal crime (usually a shooting) that they aim to honor it or out-do it by carrying out their own attack on the anniversary of the event that inspired them or planning to kill more victims than the attackers they mimic.
The media appear to play an enormous role in supplying the details and perhaps enhancing the motivations for copycat crimes.
Movies, TV shows, and social media platforms provide stories that contribute to glamorizing the criminals. After a shooting, the perpetrator’s face is plastered all over cyberspace and the news. His tactics are revealed in detail, and speculations are made about what kind of person the shooter was, what drove him to act as he did. Debates proliferate and are rehashed.
The shooter is generally portrayed as a loner, and this makes him an antihero. The antihero image and bombardment of information and imagery may provide a fertile seedbed for copycat crimes to take root.
What we have learned about copycat crimes should serve as a powerful impetus for a change in media rhetoric. News media have an obligation to report truthful news, but how about shifting the focus of the shooting stories from the perpetrators to the victims?
Why not emphasize the victims’ stories, the grief to their families and friends? How about information on the role of the media in the impact that gun crimes have on various audiences? Giving media power to victims of shootings might counteract the glamorized antihero status that often seems to be given to the shooter.
Isn’t it time to share widely the research on the media role in supporting gun violence and stimulate public efforts to curb the role of the media in copycat crimes?
Sarah Mensch is a psychology major at Boston University. She is thrilled to be working on a Directed Study focusing on the effect of the media on gun violence under the supervision of Dr. Malley Morrison. When Sarah graduates, she aims to go on to graduate school to earn an MSW and become a therapist. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys pursuing her minor in Deaf Studies, photography, and exploring Boston.