No one dared blame writer Stephen King for the spate of school shootings that rocked the nation after the publication of his 1977 novel Rage. In the book an emotionally cracked student in a froth of rage shoots up his algebra class. He kills his teacher and another adult and takes the class hostage. Yet some experts saw an eerie similarity, if not a direct link, to the King scenario in the five murderous school rampages by students that took place in the years after King's book came out. A copy of King's book was found in the bedroom of one of the shooters. An anguished King eventually yanked his book from the market.
NBC didn't immediately yank Seung Hui-Cho's mugging, posturing, and gun brandishing, telegenic video from the airways. However it downplayed it after it got pounded for pandering to cheap shock and sensationalism in airing it in the first place. The network took justifiable heat for plopping the video in front of millions of viewers still wrestling with shock and grief from Cho's killing spree. Yet, it was no surprise that it aired the tape.
For a decade, NBC and other networks have fed the public a bloated diet of car and airplane crashes, serial killings, shoot-em-ups, and workplace (postal) and school rampages, sniper shootings, teen suicide clusters, and celebrity violence. Millions of viewers have gorged on that diet, sticking to the tube like crazy glue in perverse fascination. Many howled that saturation coverage of this deadly mayhem can stir some emotionally tottering young male to strap on a gun and try to up the body count. The estimated 35 to 40 threats to blow up or shoot up schools that the FBI counted in the immediate aftermath of Cho's rampage was testament to the contagion effect.
News directors mostly shrugged off the criticism and said that no matter how gruesome a story is, it's news and they have an obligation to cover it. They're right. Though newsrooms often deliberately blur the line between what's appropriate and tasteful to air and tawdry sensationalism, school shootings are legitimate news. And it's unfair to lay all the blame for copycat violence and the threats of violence on news outlets. Violence laced video games, films, books, rap lyrics, and the hourly showing of Iraq war footage, as well as society's incessant tout of competition and aggression as male ritual are also prime culprits. They send the tacit message that violence is a socially accepted way to solve problems, and even get recognition. That message resonates squarely in the brains of many 18 to 30 year olds.
Even if a network didn't endlessly loop one grisly shooting on air, there would likely be school killings. In nearly every case, the shooters are driven to maniacal rage by taunts from schoolmates, or have a beef with teachers and administrators. The Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education examined targeted school attacks from 1974 to 2000 in its Safe School Initiative. It found the vast majority of the attackers planned their deadly acts well in advance. There were strong signals that they were plagued by behavior problems. Cho was a near textbook example of that.
Schools also are a powerful symbol to many troubled young males that perceive that teachers, administrators or other students victimize them. This reinforces the notion that society is unfair and unjust, and schools are the logical target for their revenge.
Still when the networks shifted gears and downplayed or ceased covering school shootings copycat school shootings disappeared. The September 11 terror attacks were a good example of that. Before the attacks, school shootings were the rage on newscasts. The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was the pinnacle of the coverage. The nonstop coverage incited a wave of near national panic. There were dozens of school threats and handful of copycat shootings. A terrified public believed that every campus was one disturbed student away from a bloodbath.
September 11 instantly changed that. School shootings were suddenly non-news. When one happened, it got short media shrift, and because it did, reports of school shootings virtually vanished for nearly two years. The lull presented a false sense that school shootings were a thing of the past. That isn't the case. But it presents another dilemma for the news networks. How to cover a school shooting without sensationalizing it and perversely glamorizing the shooter? A psychologist, school or law enforcement officials that try to explain factors such as depression, mental illness, despondency, or the bullying effect that drives shooters to their deranged acts can't be neatly packaged into a 20 second sound bite The sight and sound of bullets flying can be. That further feeds the mix of horror and fascination the public has with TV violence.
Cho's assault triggered a tinge of media bashing, hand wringing over violence coverage, and even a momentary soul search by a few news directors about it. But as long as violence drives ratings, and viewers help boost those ratings, a copycat Cho will continue to be a horrifying possibility.