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Don't Reward Mass Murderers With Mass Publicity

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Time magazine arrived in my mailbox today. There are many ways to grace its cover. You can found Microsoft. You can date Taylor Swift. You can win the Nobel Prize. Or you can kill or wound nineteen people, including a judge, a congresswoman, and a nine-year-old child. There on this week's cover is an artistically tweaked crazed mug shot of Jared Loughner.

In my view, Time made a huge mistake. Publicity is a very enticing motive for some violent people to commit atrocities. Eying that smirking pose, I believe Loughner got what he wanted: to see his name and his picture in lights across the world.

As I asked over at RBC before this cover appeared: Must we give him that?

I'm hardly being original here. Worries about the media coverage of atrocities go way back. Historian David Greenberg alerted me to a 1968 essay by Jerry Lindauer in the Wall Street Journal. (Incidentally, David's Slate article on political murders is great.)

Back in 1968, Lindauer argued that "mass murders seem contagious." He criticized the news media of that day for "glamourizing assassinations by lavishing attention on those who murder famous men." That was way before the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, or cable TV shows that provide pornographic attention to the latest bizarre whatever. Things haven't gotten better,

Murders such as those in Tucson are mercifully rare. So as far as I know, there is little empirical evidence to really test Lindauer's assertions. Yet there are obvious reasons for concern.

Suicide, for example, is not so rare. Suicide contagion is widely-discussed in the research literature. The National Institute of Mental Health has even issued recommendations for the new media, which notes (among other things) :

Certain ways of describing suicide in the news contribute to what behavioral scientists call "suicide contagion" or "copycat" suicides.

Research suggests that inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act may encourage others to identify with the victim.

Exposure to suicide method through media reports can encourage vulnerable individuals to imitate it. Clinicians believe the danger is even greater if there is a detailed description of the method. Research indicates that detailed descriptions or pictures of the location or site of a suicide encourage imitation.

Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person may encourage identification with the victim....

Dramatizing the impact of suicide through descriptions and pictures of grieving relatives, teachers or classmates or community expressions of grief may encourage potential victims to see suicide as a way of getting attention or as a form of retaliation against others.

These guidelines create genuine tensions. One would obviously be foolish to run a vivid mid-June series about teenage girls who jump in front of subway trains after failing an exam. Yet one can't self-censor all the time based on whatever random reaction a story might elicit in some disturbed person. Grieving relatives and friends are central to the story. When something horrible happens, we can't cover the news as if it didn't. Tragedies and mass murders are news that needs to be covered.

Still, we have some control over the manner and the dignity with which this is covered. I wish we could treat Jared Loughner as we would a grimy child molester. Yeah, the papers need to report what happened. The courts, forensic experts, and the police need todo their thing. Yet it is considered distasteful and even shameful to give the perpetrator any more of a platform than is really necessary.

By going front-page with perpetrators' photos and rantings, as we so often do, we give them something they could never earn for themselves: fifteen minutes of celebrity and fame. In 1987, People Magazine even put John Lennon's killer, Mark Chapman, on its cover alongside John Lennon himself. Chapman was artfully posed holding a copy of Catcher in the Rye.

Surely there was some Hollywood star with a complicated love life who was more worthy of that scarce slot. One of my best friends is an accomplished mathematician who loved Catcher in the Rye. He was probably available, though he's never killed or injured anybody.

By all means put pictures of Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, Christina Taylor Green, and Judge John Roll on the cover of Time. Each one of them was a special person, who is deeply missed. By all means, show the wounded survivors, and the many people who heroically intervened. Show the dedicated people in rehabilitation hospitals who will help the injured survivors long after the media spotlight moves on.

As for the perpetrator, we've seen enough of him already.