Does Making Killers Famous Make More Killers?

Almost a decade ago, Roger Ebert wondered if making mass murderers famous doesn't provide a perverse incentive.

Cory Doctorow passes along this November 2003 Roger Ebert column, which in turn was reposted at The Agonist:

The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

I’m neither expert in the relevant academic literature nor sufficiently motivated to look it up on a Saturday morning for a blog post but Ebert’s reaction strikes me as intuitively right. The fact that these monsters are made famous on TV for their heinous act can’t help but inspire other psychopaths to follow suit.

I don’t know what the answer is, here. It’s one thing for, say, ESPN to decide that they won’t reward yahoos who run onto the field of a sporting event naked hoping to make it into the SportsCenter highlights. It’s quite another, indeed, to ignore a story about innocent children being slaughtered by a psychopath. While I tend not to closely follow those stories–and I’m even less interested in wallowing in them now that I have kids of my own–there’s no way around the fact that they’re newsworthy.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Media, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    But the person’s name, family, etc. has no real bearing on the facts. If their name was left out but their history reported, if relevant, you’d go a long way to putting an end to the fame factor. Just call them killer number ??

    But, of course, the only way to do that is to develop a media, and bloggers, who have are not looking to exploit a tragedy for their own gain. Oh, and throw in the elected representatives as well. They like being able to call up a visual by saying Columbine, VA Tech, Aurora…

  2. John Peabody says:

    This is the same old story. “just print the facts!”, people say. Well, it is a fact that the Virginia Tech killer sent photographs of himself to NBC. But why did NBC have to release and feature e photographs? I agree with Mr. Ebert.

    There are dozens of cases of mass murder a year, usually killing 200 or so. That pales with the 18,000 single murders a year.

  3. GaryM says:

    The news media don’t just report these events as newsworthy crimes. They milk them for far more than they’re worth. Last night I asked my friend to change the channel when reporters started pushing microphones at school kids in Newtown. If the news media would give mass killings the same level of coverage as comparable disasters such as air crashes, it would reduce the copycat motivation.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @John Peabody: But single murders are a different animal, typically motivated by individual grievances or as byproducts of other crimes (drugs, robberies, etc.).

    @GaryM: Oh, I agree. It’s both legitimately newsworthy and covered as Reality TV. It’s essentially pornographic, the same as the coverage of natural disasters.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    I see it asa public health issue. We’re a nation of 315 million people and over 250 million guns, relatively lax gun regulations, a very active pro weaponry lobby that controls the gun regulation debate – so to me, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll have an Aurora CO or some other mass shooting incident periodically.

    Does fame make more killers? I think the easy availability of all kinds of weaponry plus population growth makes it inevitable.

  6. aFloridian says:


    You make me glad that I don’t have cable anymore (and my television is broke right now so no antenna either). Between the shameful interviews of grieving people and the talking head battles on other days, television news is high on flash but low on substance. I try to get me news from a variety of online sources – CNN, FoxNews, BBC, Huffpost AND the Blaze (both of which normally infuriate me).

    To the topic at hand, I think there is definitely something to Ebert’s argument. I’ve long thought if these disturbed killers are TRYING to commit the deadliest school shootings when they go shooting. It seems like the death toll gets worse and worse. Notice that the mall shooter last week, while he got his picture in the news, was forgotten about very quickly. This guy will, unfortunately, be remembered as we try to analyze his behavior and figure out how someone could do what people do all the time.

  7. Bernieyeball says:

    I find it curious that Citizen JKB is quick to mock attempts at regulating deadly weapons…

    JKB says:
    Friday, December 14, 2012 at 13:42
    Tell me more about these criminals who obey the law…

    Yet when controlling the contents of the press suits his agenda, why that’s a great idea.

    JKB says:
    Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 11:01
    But the person’s name, family, etc. has no real bearing on the facts. If their name was left out but their history reported, if relevant, you’d go a long way to putting an end to the fame factor. Just call them killer number ??

  8. al-Ameda says:


    Last night I asked my friend to change the channel when reporters started pushing microphones at school kids in Newtown.

    I changed channel when it came to that moment. It made me cringe. What can possibly be gleaned from asking those school kids to recount what happened there?

  9. Pharoah Narim says:

    In a word yes. Many of these folks are highly intellectual and resent living in obscurity they feel is beneath them. Add in a health dose of never-developed empathy and compassion and you’ve got the seeds of a mass killing waiting to be set off by any event. Its their chance to punish the cruel world that refused to bow at their feet and achieve a measure of fame at the sametime. Time to start looking at building up the national mental health institutions again. Guns and sociopaths don’t mix and I see it easier to separate the crazies from the country than separating the guns from the country.

  10. Kenny says:

    We are still arguing the point. Here’s just a glimpse at some of the most recent literature:

  11. Coop says:

    It’s an interesting thought, but it seems far too simplistic. More than anything, these types of events seem to be driven by “revenge fantasies,” fueled by anger and resentment from some sort of perceived mistreatment.

    Even if media attention does play a role, which we simply do not know, what difference does it make? Are we somehow going to get the media to stop publishing stories on mass killings? Realistically, no. Do people even want that? Probably not. While it’s an interesting idea, and might give us some insight into the mass murderer’s mindset (which may yield alternative benefits), the focus on the effects of media exposure hardly seems constructive if we are concerned with what we can do about it. Further, if what we care about is understanding how such events happen, shouldn’t we encourage the press to be making public as much information as possible? Doesn’t having more public information lead to better public understanding, and hopefully, better policy?

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    I thought there was a reasonably sound body of evidence for the existence of copy cat murders. Like JJ I’m not particularly motivated to start a search but I guess everyone can google. I’m not sure it’s that important in the scheme of things. What’s much more important is the total number of people with a criminal or psychological propensity to violence and their ease of access to highly efficient tools whose sole function is to kill people. Interdiction is the obvious solution but the obvious seems impossible to achieve. Some guy conceals a small bomb in his shoes and millions have been taking their shoes off ever since but the same rules apparently don’t apply to something that blows away about 9000 annually plus accidents and suicides. Go figure.

  13. nemerinys says:

    @Coop: From your Washington Post link:

    Again, though, overall gun violence in the United States has been declining in recent years while mass shootings and killings appear to have become more commonplace. It’s not entirely clear why that is. And it’s an increasingly important question.

    As the article points out, homicides have been declining while mass shootings are proliferating, and one reason may be the overall lack of publicity for the everyday murder and murderer. Mass killers, on the other hand, are the subjects of intense national coverage, with a sensationalist focus on both the act and the particulars of the killer.
    Charlie Brooker video makes the case.

  14. Jeremy R says:

    Charlie Booker on this (Forensic Psychologist being asked your question @ 1:40) :

  15. Jeremy R says:


    This Charlie Brooker video makes the case.

    Oops, you beat me to it :P.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Correlation is not causation… just to point out the obvious.


    As the article points out, homicides have been declining while mass shootings are proliferating, and one reason may be the overall lack of publicity for the everyday murder and murderer.

    Look, a guy doesn’t blow away his wife because he wants to see his picture in the paper, he does it because she pissed him off. Occam’s razor and all that.

  17. Coop says:


    For that to be true, we would have to assume that the common place murderer operates under similar psychological pressures as the mass murderer. That seems doubtful. E.g. street violence among drug dealers that ends up in a shooting is a completely different beast from the upper-middle class white kid who snaps and goes on a shooting spree. I doubt that violence has declined for the more “commonplace murder” (I’m not sure what to call it) b/c there is less media attention. I haven’t looked at that video yet b/c I’m not in the best place for it right now, but I’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks for posting.

  18. Bernieyeball says:

    …kid who snaps and goes on a shooting spree.

    snaps…I hear this all the time when people are describing unacceptable human behavior.
    Is this a medical term used in psychology or a legal term used as a defense when one is on trial?
    Or is it just mumbo jumbo?

  19. Coop says:


    Obviously it’s a colloquial term. That sentence wasn’t offering an in depth explanation of the phenomenon, just saying that it’s a vastly different scenario from your run of the mill shooting, often with completely different motives. You don’t need medical or legal terminology to figure that out.

    That said, I do think, psychologically, there is some accuracy behind it. Their behavior seems to be an expression of some long harbored anger/resentment. See the study I linked to above.

    But in another sense, you’re right, it’s kind of inaccurate. Often these types of acts are planned out way in advance, so it’s less of an emotional reaction than, say, the guy who catches his wife in the act of cheating and shoots them both.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:


    snaps…I hear this all the time when people are describing unacceptable human behavior.

    I’ll be honest. I knew a man who killed his wife and then blew his brains out. I did not see him kill his wife, but I did see his brains fly. NONE of it made sense to me….. and then I picked up his children off the street.

    One can not make sense of this. I tried, But in the end, I had four screaming children to get off the street. 2 days later they were asking me questions. I had no answers.

    It does not matter, violence of this sort is beyond reason

  21. Bernieyeball says:

    …it’s kind of inaccurate.

    No kidding.
    It is about as worthwhile as “everything happens for a reason.”
    Or to put it bluntly…meaningless.