The Influence of the Media on Copycat Crimes

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The recent strawberry contamination crisis had a devastating effect on berry farmers across the nation.

It appears to have started as a relatively isolated incident, where an individual or small group decided to insert needles into berries from two Queensland brands.

But the conduct gradually spread, affecting six strawberry brands, apples, bananas and even a mango across jurisdictions.

Over 100 reports of needles or pins in fruit were reported across six Australian jurisdictions: NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT the Northern Territory.

Despite the devastation, some took to social media to boast of contaminating their fruit – including a 62-year old woman in Mackay, North Queensland who allegedly inserted a needle into a banana.

There were even reports of a 12 year old school girl inserting a needle into a strawberry at her Blue Mountains school.

But why do people commit copycat crimes? And what role, if any, does the media play in motivating these offences?

The copycat effect

The term ‘copycat effect’ was coined in the early twentieth century after criminologists observed a correlation between media reporting of the 11 murders believed to have been committed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ in London between April 1888 and February 1891, and the string of murders across the country that followed.

A similar phenomenon was observed in relation to the suicides of young men that followed the ‘dangerous’ 1774 novel, The Sorrows of the Young Werther.

The book details the plight of a young, sensitive and passionate artist by the name of Werther, who falls in love with a beautiful young girl, Charlotte.

The girl is engaged to an older man by the name of Albert, a situation which Werther finds unbearable. Werther leaves town in an attempt to escape his despair, but continues to contact Charlotte.

He makes one final visit, where the pair are overcome with emotions. Charlotte feels someone must die to rectify the situation. Unable to commit murder, Werther instead kills himself.

The book inspired a spate of suicides by young men across a Europe and was eventually banned in Germany, Italy and Denmark.

Dangers of the effect

Researchers at Arizona State University have studied whether mass killings and school shootings are in the United States may be the product of the copycat effect.

They examined a database of these events and concluded that there is indeed “significant evidence of contagion.” They found a dramatically increased likelihood of a second mass killing occurring within two weeks of the initial one.

They further found that 20-30% of mass shootings were inspired by past events that were heavily publicised in the media. This led on of the authors to label the media as a “vector that reaches people who are vulnerable.”

FBI behavioural analyst Andre Simons has similarly concluded that the vulnerable are the most likely to commit copycat crimes. After studying 160 “active shooter” events over the past decade, Mr Simons concluded, “We think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks.”

Both pieces of research found that such events are prevalent to the present day. In fact, author Zeynep Tufekci’s suggests that copycat crimes are increasing in accordance with the the proliferation of digital media, especially the rise in the popularity of social media.

Impact of mental health issues

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that mental health issues are a significant contributing factor to the commission of copycat crimes.

In her book “The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines”, Loren Coleman outlines that the media often ignores the mental health issues suffered by offenders in favour of presenting them the “nice boy next door”, or even inadvertently glamorising the events.

Ms Coleman explains that copycat criminals often adopt the personas of those they are imitating. This is known as “depersonalisation”, which allows them to “avoid the natural human hesitancy against offending.”

Media influence

Ms Tufekci suggests that copycat crimes can be prevented through a number of means, including:

  • The use of carefully selected, non-sensationalistic language on the part of law enforcement and the media when communicating news of crimes to the public;
  • Avoiding the release of both details on the methods of crimes and the name of suspects;
  • Avoiding the perpetuation of clichés and stereotypes about criminals and the causes of their behavior;
  • Emphasising the effect of the crimes on the victims and their loved ones; and
  • Including protective factors like help lines when publishing stories on such crimes

She argues that such changes do not amount to censoring the media, but will result in more sensible reporting that can reduce the prospects of similar crimes occurring in the wake of major events.

Ms Tufekci points out that the media has been known to alter coverage when the lives of reporters are at stake. An example of this was when NBC’s foreign correspondent Richard Engel was kidnapped in Syria. Although the abduction was widely known to US journalists, media outlets participated in a blackout to give the reporter the best chance of survival. That blackout was lifted only after Mr Engel was safe.

Tufekci believes similarly responsible conduct should be adopted when reporting mass shootings and other major crimes.

The “No Notoriety Campaign” is an initiative designed to pressure media outlets to refrain from publishing certain information while suspects are at large, and from glamorising those who engage in abhorrent acts. The campaign is backed by research which suggests that publishing the names and pictures of those who engage in mass killings increases the likelihood of others following in suit to make names for themselves.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.
Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a lawyer with a passion for social justice who advocates criminal law reform, and a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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