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Cycles of news and violence

'Copycat' explores the link between suicide susceptibility and the melodrama-loving media

The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines
By Loren Coleman
Paraview, 306 pp., paperback, $14

The years following the 1774 publication of Goethe's ''The Sorrows of Young Werther" were tough ones for Europe's romantics. The book -- about a melodramatic lad who takes his own life after falling in love with a woman promised to another -- was banned in Italy, Germany, and Denmark after too many young men followed suit, with a copy of ''Werther" by their side. Centuries later, Marilyn Monroe's 1962 suicide would provoke a similar trend. In the month after her death, 197 suicides were apparently modeled on that of the Hollywood star. Most of them were young blond women.

After all the connections drawn between ''The Matrix" and the shootings at Columbine or domestic violence and Eminem's lyrics, the causal link between violence and the media seems almost intuitive, if not exactly quantifiable. Americans have endured too many wide-eyed television anchors spouting breaking news about Scott Peterson's toothbrush to question the adage ''If it bleeds, it leads." We take the trope for granted, as does Loren Coleman in his new book, ''The Copycat Effect." From school shootings and teenage suicide pacts to workplace rampages, Coleman cites countless violent acts -- suicides mainly, but murders too -- said to have been inspired by the lurid and distasteful media, which, for the author, includes both popular culture and news coverage of violent events. Of utmost concern is how irresponsible coverage of one event -- Kurt Cobain's suicide, for instance -- encourages ''copycat" suicides. ''The media loves melodrama," Coleman writes. ''Sensationalism now rules the news. In the human realm, the media reinforces the events it covers."

Despite how logical the connection between popular culture, news coverage, and violence seems, however, ''The Copycat Effect" will not be remembered as groundbreaking media criticism. While it starts off promisingly by discussing their use of fear as a marketing tool (think shark attacks), Coleman does little more in the book's 306 pages than draw and denounce vague connections between a violent act and a song, movie, or news program. Of course, irrefutable proof of a link may be impossible to obtain, but in place of in-depth analysis or even quotes, we too often get a laundry list. On the classic film ''The Deer Hunter," which used Russian roulette as a metaphor for Vietnam, Coleman writes: ''Danny Turowski, 12, of Detroit, Michigan, died playing Russian roulette with his father's revolver at Lady Queen of Angels School, imitating a scene from 'The Deer Hunter' . . . Bruce K. Genke, 27, of St. Louis, Missouri, killed himself while reenacting 'The Deer Hunter' in his car in the presence of a friend." This goes on for six tedious pages.

In place of this, Coleman should have spent more time grappling with the rich and often slippery questions surrounding media and violence. In other words, even if he couldn't prove a connection, he could have made it interesting.

Some of his examples, including a chapter on ancient suicide pacts, have nothing to do with CNN, Fox News, or other news media. And the ones that do are rarely used to ask the hard questions. What, for instance, might the coverage mean about our collective social psyche? Why do some events covered by the media seem to trigger more violence than others? And why were we so obsessed with child abductions -- strange men invading our homes, stealing our daughters, that sort of thing -- during the summer after 9/11? As Coleman points out, child abductions were no higher the summer of 2002, despite all the media madness.

Finally, what is to be done? In the years following the 2000 presidential election, it hasn't been hard to persuade anyone that the news media could botch something. (Given the extreme caution they displayed this month, news anchors seem to have gotten this point.) But except for a few recommendations, and a brief aside that he's not advocating censorship, it is unclear what Coleman would like the Wolf Blitzers of the world to do. How do you accurately report 9/11, or even Waco, in a way that blurs the details enough to prevent similar actions? And can you always stamp out or soften images of death in popular culture? Do we really want to see Juliet weighing the pros and cons of death just before joining Romeo? I exaggerate, but only slightly. The point is that while there are a slew of complex questions raised -- is there a difference between, say, the presentation of death in ''Natural Born Killers" and ''Six Feet Under" -- ''The Copycat Effect" never explores them.

The book also suffers from a less complicated infirmity: a bad title. This one throws the reader off. Media analysis seems like something Coleman endures, when his real passion -- what he understands best, does best, and should have focused on -- is suicide. The most interesting parts of the book are those that attempt to get inside the mind-set of individuals who commit suicide -- which is two to three times more common than murder, with young males being the usual victims. In chapters on suicide pacts among teenagers and in cults, in a voice that is not high-toned but sincere, we learn how susceptible people become to violence when friends, family members, or spiritual allies kill themselves. Indeed, suicides seem to inspire more suicides. And Coleman rightfully points out that the news media especially need to take this into consideration. Other good, if passing, suggestions include avoiding the ''nice boy next door" clichs, focusing more on the grief caused by a suicide, and providing information on suicide prevention.

But even at his best, Coleman shirks the tough stuff. In a chapter on political self-immolation, he never asks if it's possible to kill yourself ethically. Did the monks who burned themselves in protest of the Vietnam War die in vain or, worse, become morally suspect because their deaths may have inspired similar acts? That's the sense you get from the book, though your gut tells you there's more to the story.

Ashley Sayeau has written on politics and popular culture for a variety of publications, including The Nation, Salon, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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