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Reflections on Columbine: Pressing the Mute Button

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The saturation media coverage potentially increases the likelihood of the next school shooting by making the unthinkable seem normal.

No one fully understands what happened in Jefferson County, Colo., last month, or in Jonesboro, Ark., last year, and perhaps we never will. But certain facts about how the media operate, and what the media now regularly invite us to share as a culture are worthy of our consideration.

I'm not saying that the media directly caused these outrageous acts. But one has to wonder if such events would have happened were we living in the media environment of the 1890s, or even the 1950s. The question that must be answered is why are these events happening now?

Particularly troublesome is that the saturation media coverage potentially increases the likelihood of the next school shooting, both by making the unthinkable seem somehow more normal and by providing a model for the expression of disturbed fantasies. (Even as I write, news of a 14-year-old shooter's attack at a Canadian high school adds to fears of a wave of copycat attacks simulating the Colorado tragedy.)

After all, what quicker way for a lonely and troubled youth to gain immortality or some of the attention he so desperately seeks? The media have demonstrated once again that committing a heinous act will garner intense coverage, broadcasting the once-unknown perpetrator's name hundreds of times to every corner of the nation. One national newsmagazine presented a nearly romanticized soft-focus, full-page color photograph of one of the Columbine High School perpetrators.

Consider, too, that all this media coverage is helping saddle contemporary youths with an undeserved public image of themselves as a group, an image that some may well carry with them for years to come.

But the possible causative media connections in the Columbine High incident are especially disturbing, particularly the perpetrators' intense interest in the video game Doom. Not to mention less-well-substantiated reports of their interest in two movies, "Natural Born Killers" and "The Basketball Diaries."

Twenty-five years ago, an alienated young person might have had a fleeting fantasy of blowing up his school or shooting someone. Now we have a major, worldwide industry reaping profits from video games that normalize this sort of fantasy, encourage it, and provide tens of millions of young people the opportunity to rehearse killing people, over and over, in increasingly life-like graphic color. What was once a fantasy lasting just a few fleeting seconds, one that most anyone would know was not a healthy one to indulge in, is now prepackaged and experienced by some for hours each day.

The National Institute of Mental Health came to the conclusion more than a quarter of a century ago that while the great majority of people are not made more violent by violent media, there are people who are more psychologically at risk than others and, for them, the media do play a role in their behavior. Even if the proportion of such psychologically vulnerable viewers in the general population is as low as one out of every 10,000, we are still left with 28,000 such people in the United States. It took only two to wreak the havoc at Columbine High.

Is it more or less probable that school shootings would occur in a society that traffics constantly in extraordinarily violent media images, as compared, say, with a society where such images do not occur at all? Would they have been less likely to occur were even one-tenth of all the shooting deaths we each witness every year in fictional media presentations replaced by images and storylines in which people worked to resolve their differences nonviolently, through talk and negotiation?

Consumers should know that economic boycotts against advertisers can be effective when directed toward their sponsorship of violent media excess.

Indeed, to my mind, the single most promising avenue for ending our outrageous record of school violence--not to mention the terrible hurt that accompanies all too many students' experiences of junior high and high school--is the widespread adoption by schools of well-designed programs in conflict resolution and peer mediation, programs that emphasize nonviolent means of defusing trouble, start in the earliest grades, and continue through graduation.

Two days after the Colorado tragedy, President Clinton visited T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., where such a program seems to be working well. In England, these are called "anti-bullying" programs. They are impressive, and there are reports that fighting and other conflict in some schools have been substantially reduced while the atmosphere for learning has been substantially improved.

Before we give in to those who would put a metal detector in every entrance of every school, and before it becomes commonplace for teenagers' damaging name-calling to escalate to devastating violence, the federal government must sponsor research that establishes which of these preventive programs works best.

We also must ask ourselves a question. What should we find more shameful as members of contemporary American society: young people killing innocent classmates, or the regular, horrific media images that our information and entertainment industries churn out year after year, expressly for young people to experience? In the latter case, it is adults, not children or adolescents, who create the mayhem for profit.

As a society, we might be better able to alter what these media conglomerates purvey than to prevent the acting out of that one individual in a million who will explode unpredictably in violence. And while we're at it, we could turn, as a society, to an examination of the one factor that truly distinguishes America from almost every country where kids aren't shooting each other at school: the incredibly ready access to guns.

Millions of parents, of course, need to exercise far more responsibility than they do now in monitoring what their children watch, listen to, and experience in cyberspace. But we also must recognize that it's not entirely up to parents, who cannot be in every room of the home every moment of the day, or at the neighbors'. These days, many a dutiful parent may keep one finger on the mute button, lest the latest horrific "news tease" or promotion for a late-night horror movie be heard by the youngest of children.

What else can be done?

First, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission should step up political and legal pressure on the media industries to reduce the production and distribution of graphic, gratuitous, and interactive media violence. Second, consumers should know that economic boycotts against advertisers can be effective when directed toward their sponsorship of violent media excess. Third, educators, in concert with parents through their PTAs and religious, Scouting, and other groups, can become much more proactive in instituting formal programs of media education that help get young people to think more critically about their media choices and experiences. Such programs are now required of all students, K-12, in Australia, and also in parts of England and Canada. Fourth, more news outlets might follow the lead of the Chicago Sun-Times' very deliberate decision to downplay such stories, running them on inside pages, rather than the front page.

No one can predict or readily prevent the next horrible episode when some sad, alienated soul runs amok with a loaded weapon. But we can do something about the regular exposure of both children and adults to unconscionable and grotesque media images that beg to be imitated by the most at-risk members of our society, while desensitizing the rest of us to the pain and suffering of others.


Robert W. Kubey, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., is a developmental psychologist who researches the effects of the media. His latest book is Media Literacy in the Information Age (Transaction, 1997). Portions of this essay are adapted from his essay in the May 27, 1998, Christian Science Monitor.

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