Are media acting as a publicity machine for shooters?

Experts question the role of expanded coverage in triggering incidents such as Friday's in El Cajon, Calif.

The second high-profile school shooting by a teenage gunman in three weeks is opening a new chapter of community introspection here, even as it fuels the growing national dialogue over school violence.

Three students and two teachers were injured, not seriously, when senior Jason Hoffman allegedly sprayed bullets from a 12-gauge shotgun during fifth-period classes on a 60-acre, suburban campus.

But besides raising a now-familiar litany of issues - including youth access to firearms, violence in popular culture, family breakups, and racial hatred - the El Cajon shootings point to another problem: the role of expanded media coverage during such episodes and its possible connection to copycat crimes.

"We've got to stop putting the pictures of these kids on national magazines and analyzing every facet of their lives as if they are heroes or celebrities," says Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists. "[Such coverage] can't help but send signals to others who might be off balance that the tactic will bring intense attention to the issues and wrongs these perps want to spotlight."

Experts have long known that similar crimes often spike upward after high-profile incidents. Within four days of the shooting in suburban Santee on March 5 - killing two and injuring 13 - no fewer than 12 alleged shooting plots were reported nationwide.

But the latest student shooting in El Cajon, coming just three weeks after and five miles from the one in Santee, is bringing even more scrutiny of media coverage.

"The Santana High episode, more than any other of the high-profile school shootings, showed the young boy on TV over and over and over, surrounded by high-profile lawyers, mental-health professionals, and counselors going back and forth. We didn't used to see that," says Helen Smith, a forensic criminologist in Tennessee who has written a book on adolescent violence. "You can't tell me that this new shooter, or any other kid on the edge looking for attention, did not pick up on this."

Part of the added news coverage - including on-the-spot interviews with teachers, friends, and family - has happened because of the expansion of cable and satellite channels, and increased competition from round-the-clock news organizations.

"Because of the 24-hour news cycle, any kid who steps into the spotlight knows he will be the instant subject of a national, live miniseries on his life, with instant interrogation of every family member, friend, and acquaintance he or she ever knew," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

Because of the media's expanded role, many analysts and critics say news organizations should take voluntary steps to exercise their First Amendment rights responsibly.

"Media [see themselves] as having an obligation to cover these episodes as part of their mission and public service," says Dave Kopel, director of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.

"One of the things they could now take up on their own is whether or not you are going to give the perp a guaranteed first story on the evening news or page 1 in the newspaper instead of page 4," Mr. Kopel continues.

Many analysts say such discussions could possibly only succeed on the level of voluntary guidelines, not strict rules or laws.

There is some precedent for such actions. In some cases where national security is at stake, or that of a local community, officials such as the president and a mayor have asked top newspapers and TV shows to sit on information for the sake of safety. But such instances are rare.

Analysts hasten to add that expanded coverage is bringing much-needed light to issues previously hidden or little understood.

"Media need to get credit for the other side of the coin as well, which is changing the taboo of tattling by schoolmates on possible shooters, as well as changing the code of silence surrounding such incidents," says Professor Thompson.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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