Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts.
Monday I watched in horror with most of America as the story of the Chardon High School shooting unfolded. But my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath—hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.
But they did.
They did exactly what they needed to do to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.
1. They named the shooter.
2. They described his characteristics.
3. They detailed the crime.
4. They numbered the victims.
5. They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.
School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.
There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influence copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Contrast this trend with no increase in suicides in the week following a media strike that unintentionally suppresses such coverage.
The same is true of school massacres. On Groundhog Day, February 2, 1996 a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates, and severely wounded another student. The media obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning, and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of February 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. And yet another on March 13. More than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource in their crimes.
Of course, when the Rage pattern became clear, the media scurried to get King’s reaction. King could have defended his right to free speech and used the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument—claiming the problem was the perpetrators’ mental health not his book.
But he didn’t. He apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter.
The challenge our society faces is balancing the need to not cause additional mayhem through known influence methods with the right of free speech. As is the case with all complicated issues, there are multiple values to consider here.
It’s time to ask if we should find a way to stifle such reports, limit the anguish, and disallow one form of speech, for the greater good.
One thing is for certain—those who write about, talk about, televise, and otherwise report on school shootings need to take their lead from Mr. King by examining their own motives and methods—given that when news outlets include certain details of a crime in their reports that act as a virtual workshop for would-be acolytes, they are likely to incite similar actions.
Surely, media specialists feel the tension between their own values and staying in business. And yet, they must realize that their goals to get more air time, sell more ad space, and earn more attention don’t justify the potential to create new pain and sorrow.
The obvious first step is to talk openly about all sides of the issue—including the latest research. Media outlets need to examine their own tactics, impact, and motives. It would be wonderful if the entire industry started regulating certain aspects of what is reported. This could only be accomplished through collaboration between competitive entities and so far, we haven’t seen any progress in this direction.
Perhaps it’s time for legislators to start their own dialogue. Perhaps we now have enough scientific evidence to suggest that it’s time to take action before more lives are lost. It’s time we matched responsibility with influence.