Massacres on TV: Inviting Copycats

By | March 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

Don B. Kates Jr., J.D.

Sixty years ago, when massacres were far and few between, so were gun laws. Juveniles could legally own firearms in virtually every state. Sixty years of ever-increasing guns laws, and criminological studies of them, have proved only that laws cannot stop criminals, fanatics, or lunatics, or anyone else who really wants guns, from getting them.

Germany has among the world’s strictest gun laws, but German police regularly uncover illegal armories possessed by neo-Nazi youth groups.

Violence is the product of numerous factors, most of them far more fundamental than the availability of any particular form of weaponry. In the case of modern massacres, however, one of the main causes is rarely discussed, though it is simple and obvious: TV. Instantaneous broadcast news repeatedly shows our outcasts, losers, and misfits how to call nationwide attention to themselves and even go down in history.
Though many other causes are obscure, on this the pattern is clear: While there were massacres before instant nationwide TV coverage, they did not inspire nationwide imitators. [Emphasis added.]
● In 1913 the print media widely reported the killing, by a disgruntled employee with an axe, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress and six others in Wisconsin.
● In 1929 a demented tax protester dynamited a grammar school near Lansing, Michigan, killing 45 children and teachers.
● In 1944 a disgruntled Barnum & Bailey employee set fire to a circus in Hartford, Connecticut, killing 168.
● In 1949 a Camden, N.J. man, feeling his neighbors were laughing at him, shot 13 of them to death.
What did not happen in the era before live broadcasts on nationwide TV was massacre after massacre after massacre.
Local TV coverage can perform valuable services, broadcasting emergency information that relatives and police urgently need. But CNN’s nationwide live re-broadcast coverage provides nothing that could not wait for the evening news – which itself could usefully minimize sensational coverage rather than maximizing it.
Of course, no matter how sensationalistic it may be, TV news does no harm to the great majority of its consumers. But it teaches a tiny minority of misfits and losers (of all ages) how to produce great effects and obtain attention – even go down in history – as they could never otherwise hope to do.
Don B. Kates is an attorney and former professor of constitutional law. He was active in the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and has generally liberal views on social topics. On the subject of violent criminals, however, he has no illusions and favors strict punishment. Mr. Kates is also a staunch defender of the Second Amendment. He is associated with the Independent Institute and can be contacted there.

Editor’s Note:

Mr. Kates’ point that excessive TV coverage of massacres and other spectacular crimes may inspire copycats is worth careful consideration. But in addition, excessive TV coverage of ordinary crimes gives poorly informed viewers the false impression that crime is rampant and increasing, when in fact the opposite has recently been true.

As the pie chart shows, over one-quarter of local TV “news” can consist of crime stories. This exaggerated picture of the risk of violent crime leads to many ill-conceived measures, including overly strict gun-control legislation. “If it bleeds, it leads” may make for dramatic TV “news,” but it leads to unfortunate results.
Do I want government censorship of TV? Absolutely not. I do want self-censorship by TV executives? Yes, but this will never happen. Still, at least we can be aware of the proctologist’s view of society that TV “news” gives us, and try to make allowances for it.
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