Irony of ironies: even as the news media is trying hard to blame the inflammatory words of conservatives for the Tucson massacre, its own conduct is increasing the likelihood of more carnage in the future.
Jared Loughner’s eerily cheerful mug shot is so evocative of madness and malice that virtually no website, newspaper or broadcast news program has been able to resist showing it. Of course, publicity, recognition and infamy is exactly what Loughner wanted. It is also exactly what many other mass murderers and serial killers want, and observing the success Loughner has had making himself a national figure can only encourage the next deranged killer to follow his lead.
There is no excuse for the news media ignoring this factor, for it is well-recognized and documented. The principle that giving excessive publicity to a mass murderer provokes copycat killers is almost a cliché in the movies and television; it is repeated every other week on shows like CBS’s “Criminal Minds.” In light of this, why is the media making Loughner’s face so familiar anyway? It’s simple: in a choice between getting more readers or viewers and avoiding putting more Americans at risk, most of the news media will take the former every time. Even articles that point out that giving Loughner’s photo national visibility will encourage other publicity-seeking killers include his photo, and these are the same people who have tried to blame Loughner’s rampage on Sarah Palin’s cross-hair graphics.
Dave Kopel, posting at the Volokh Conspiracy, has written extensively about how irresponsible it is for the media to give the wide exposure to killers they often crave. He points out that even publicizing Loughner’s name is irresponsible:
“There was some value in reporting the killer’s name initially, in part so that people who knew him could come forward and provide information. At this point, however, repeating the name adds nothing useful. In general, a publicity-seeking murderer’s name should be mentioned only if clearly necessary (for example, in an encyclopedia entry, or in a newspaper report about judicial proceedings), and never otherwise. Let his name sink like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. Let us remember instead the names of the victims and the heroes.”
Rather than manufacturing blame for the current killing, an ethical news media should focus on the difficult balancing task of meeting its journalistic duty to inform while minimizing the risk of harm to the public inherent in making public figures out of lunatics. Unfortunately, our news media seems interested only in politics and profits.