THE BLOG
12/17/2012 11:01 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

On Whether Media Overkill Plays a Role in Creating Shooting-Spree Incidents

I'll leave to others the debate over whether it's insane to make acquiring assault weapons easy, and related questions, and will also forgo riffing on the numbing, soul-crushing sadness and horror of contemplating the list of twenty names and their ages.

I'd like simply to check in with a word for all those who, like me, have worked as a copy editor writing headlines or a reporter chasing a story and say: There can be no doubt that blanket media coverage of monstrosities like school shootings can have the effect of making additional such gruesome incidents more likely.

Everyone knows this is true. They might want to argue against it, or to claim that media people always have a duty to overdo a story, to flog it to death, to push the horrible into the faces of the reader or viewer at every opportunity since, after all, everyone else is doing it. But really at some level everyone understands that if you assault the audience with hateful, lurid images and turn mass killers into stars, it can have that effect.

I'm not theorizing here, I'm stating fact. For example, I spent months in the early '90s researching the very sad case of a young man named Mehrdad Dashti who on the night of September 26, 1990, entered a pub south of the UC Berkeley campus armed to the teeth and went on a depraved rampage, shooting seven people and taking dozens of hostages. Dashti only killed one person and was himself taken out by a SWAT team, so there is no attempt here to claim strong similarities with more recent shooting sprees.

However, I do know that Dashti's ex-wife watched him change from a calm, quiet, gentle person into someone filled with rage and hate, because I was the one reporter to track her down and get her to talk to me, and I know that for this transformation she blamed a combination of mental illness and the corrosive influence of hours of television that Dashti watched in the year or two before the incident..

There are no easy answers. Everyone has to process such tragedies as this latest obscenity in whatever manner they can. But knowing what I know about Mehrdad Dashti, I do think that if more people simply turned away from such incidents, and stopped filling up on the horrors of a story, and if more media outlets found some way to avoid going overboard, it would have to be a good thing. Does that mean the media is culpable for such crimes as this? No it does not. But it does mean that there is nothing ineluctable about collective and individual media choices that seem so often to come down to two options: more or more.