Jack the Ripper and the Copycat Effect

The media bear much responsibility for the mass casualty attacks they blame on guns. The copycat effect is so widely recognized some countries ban reporting of suicides.
Jack the Ripper and the Copycat Effect
By: George Noga – January 14, 2018

       In our post of December 10, 2017, we promised to focus on the role of the media in spawning mass casualty attacks (“MCA”). There are many effective actions we can take to reduce MCAs; our December 10th post (available here) addressed untreated mental illness as the single greatest cause. The second leading cause is the copycat effect, known at least since the 1774 publication of a Goethe novel.

       Nearly 250 years ago, Johann von Goethe wrote his classic “The Sorrows of Young Werther” wherein the hero commits suicide with a pistol. Following its publication, there was a spate of identical suicides throughout Europe at a time of low population when few could read, books were dear and news moved glacially. Now, there are seven billion mostly literate and interconnected people; the media are global and pervasive; and news travels at the speed of light. And when there is a copycat MCA, the media reflexively blame it on guns; this is as crazy as blaming pistols for Werther’s suicide 

        Even today, a spike in emulation suicides following a widely publicized suicide is known as the Werther Effect. Following Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 suicide from a drug overdose, there were at least 200 copycat suicides within 30 days. The copycat effect is so widely recognized that some countries (Norway) ban all reporting of suicides.

Jack the Ripper is to MCAs what Young Werther is to suicides. Jack the Ripper inspired many copycat attacks in his time and they continue (mostly in England) up to this day. Sociologists as early as 1890 understood that highly publicized crimes could be self-spreading and coined the term suggesto-imitative assaults.

      Much has been learned since Jack the Ripper; the following is accepted science: (1) The amount of attention paid to MCAs is directly related to their occurrence; (2) MCAs occur in clusters, not randomly; (3) A MCA is much more likely in the aftermath of a recent MCA; and (4) There is no contagion with 3 or fewer causalities.

      Recent studies also identify ways to reduce MCAs: (1) Do not glorify shooters or sensationalize their actions; (2) Use shooters’ names only when absolutely necessary; (3) Avoid use of superlatives such as “record number killed”. Also, the media should vastly limit (voluntarily) coverage except in the area the MCA occurred. No pictures or images of the perpetrator should be shown, especially in an iconic Che Guevara pose, like the photo of Dzhokar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    Progressives and the media (one and the same) blame guns for every MCA; however, they themselves are culpable. If we did not ignore untreated mental illness and took steps to reduce the copycat effect, MCAs would plummet. When subtracting gun deaths due to suicides and the failed war on drugs with its appurtenant gang violence, the US gun homicide rate would be among the lowest in the world.

       We have understood the copycat effect for both suicides and MCAs since at least the times of Young Werther and Jack the Ripper respectively. It’s beyond time we held the media to account for their significant share of the butcher’s bill.

The next post on January 21 analyzes the first year of the Trump presidency.