Unnaturally Made Killers

After a week of media coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, we can compare how different outlets have shaped our view of events there. Megan McCardle notes:

I haven’t found a single editorial addressing one factor we know creates these mass murders: reporting on the mass murders. In the next few weeks and months, even over the next few years, expect to see copycat killings inspired by Cho’s actions. The more saturated the media coverage, the more such events we are likely to get.

Of course, it’s impossible to fully assess causation here, an issue that has vexed media reformers for decades. But Thomas de Zengotita has weighed in on how deeply mediated this killer’s self-conception was, and how the whole event quickly became polarized between different “scripts,” or ways of making sense of a terrible reality. Many criticize the media for airing so much of the shooter’s “media kit,” for complicity in fulfilling (if posthumously) a disturbed soul’s demand for the world’s attention.

Some respond that competitive pressures made the decision by NBC to share the materials inevitable. The Canadian Broadcasting Company decided not to air the Cho videos….but they are under less ratings pressure than American broadcasters, and at the time it aired the tapes, NBC was losing share to ABC.

Is there a role for law to deter an arms race of sensationalism? Fred Yen has mentioned a possible copyright issue here, but it’s hard to imagine the shooter’s family being capable of putting such a suit at the top of its concerns….especially immediately in the aftermath of the murders.

Could a ban on broadcast of such materials work? Perhaps, but I imagine would-be celebrity killers would simply upload their rants into the BitTorrent and YouTube ether. Blogs would quickly jump on disseminating it, eager for the fame & links that it could bring.

So despite my occasional dirigisme, I can’t see a role for law here. The public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism, and predictably ensuing frenzies for renown, appear to be a durable aspect of a decentralized and link-driven web. Technology + Competition > Values.

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