Does media coverage risk inspiring copycat killers?

Reporter's Notebook: If each parent had not read about previous cases, perhaps the idea of killing their children would never have entered their heads.

November 12, 2010 02:31
3 minute read.
Crowd surrounds home of suspect, Michal Aloni

311_house of Raanana murder suspect. (photo credit: YAAKOV LAPPIN)

Wednesday’s murders in Ra’anana marked the seventh case of a child or children murdered by a parent or a close relative that I have covered in just over two years as The Jerusalem Post’s Social Affairs Reporter.

While each one raises many questions, ranging from what type of society Israel has become to the numerous challenges faced by modern day parents, the sticking point for me as a journalist is whether our own detailed coverage of such tragedies inspires others to follow suit? This is not a lighthearted question and of course it’s clear that murdering one’s children cannot simply be explained as a “trend.”

Social workers to boost training after child murders
Roni, 4, and Natalie, 6, laid to rest in Ra’anana

However, the eerie similarities between all seven incidents begs the question. If each successive parent had not read about the previous case or cases on the front pages of Israel’s dailies or watched the events unfold – often in real time – on TV or the Internet, then perhaps the idea of killing their children when it all got too much would never have entered their heads.

In 2000, the World Health Organization published “Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals,” which states: “One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”

While copycat suicides seem to be well documented, there is little research to indicate that parents murdering their children are spurred by what they see or hear in the media.

“I doubt that by the media reporting such incidents it would give someone the idea that this is a good thing to do and that they should do the same thing,” Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, executive director of the National Council for the Child, said on Thursday, a day after Michal Aloni choked to death her two young daughters.

“In some cases vilification in the media might even deter the next murder,” Kadman said.

According to the National Council for the Child, 42 children have been murdered by family members in the last eight years and there is an average of five or six cases in Israel each year.

“We have not really noticed that the more coverage one of these cases got from the media, the more cases there were,” Kadman said.

Rather than encouraging copycat acts, most experts working in the field of detecting or preventing child abuse, which is often the forerunner to such murders, would likely agree with Kadman’s assessment and even take it further by calling for more media attention to be paid to the issue.

In fact, they say that media reports help to create awareness of children at risk and alert neighbors, friends, teachers and doctors to acts that were once well hidden behind the walls of a family’s home.

They believe that creating awareness is one of the keys to prevention.

So, if all agree that media reports create awareness and awareness helps alert authorities and prevent more tragedies, the final question should be: How should newspapers and television cover these emotionally loaded crimes? Kadman says that the red flag must be waved when the “level of coverage becomes almost pornographic.”

He is referring to the often unfounded speculation by the media as to why such a murder has happened or the baseless character assessments often shared by distant relatives or out of touch neighbors, and especially the insensitive and clearly sensationalist invasion of the crime scene by voyeuristic TV cameras.

Perhaps as journalists we should focus our energies toward sparking discourse in society about its attitudes toward the plight of struggling parents or weaker populations and help figure out in general how to become a more tolerant and caring society.

All of which could help to prevent the next child from being murdered.

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