Flat White

The Werther Effect

7 June 2022

11:00 AM

7 June 2022

11:00 AM

Perhaps the most significant landmark of my youth was learning of the unexplained death of Avicii, the stage name of Swedish DJ Tim Bergling.

We were at a loss to understand why such a beloved artist has perished so unexpectedly, especially since so few details had been released. In the coming weeks it became clear that Bergling had passed away by his own hand; and though we did not know it at the time, this withholding of information was the first time we had experienced initiatives to combat the ‘Werther Effect’.

The Werther Effect is named for The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel written by Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. In this novel, a young man falls in love with a married woman and, with seemingly no way to resolve his heartache, takes his own life.

Following the publication of the novel, young men, identifying with Werther’s plight, would dress as the protagonist in a blue coat and yellow pants; it was even rumoured that suicides of the time were found garbed in this style and with a copy of the novel by their bodies. The incidences of increased suicide rate following the news of celebrity suicide (The Werther effect of celebrity suicides: Evidence from South Korea) was named for this phenomenon.

The latest shooting tragedy at an Oklahoma medical centre is representative of a broader pattern of mass shooting occurrences; they tend to ‘come in clusters’, and researchers prefer to call the spate of shootings following high-profile media reporting ‘generalised imitation’. Could it be that reporting practices concerning mass shootings feed further tragedies as the Werther Effect did for suicide?

The gun ownership debate has been settled, for want of a better word, in America. No matter the arguments made or the events that happen, no more minds will be changed and legislative inertia will prevail. The ingrained culture of firearm ownership inside America is something that mystifies outside observers, but for a significant number of people forms a vital part of their culture and heritage. To try to alter this will be an exercise in futility.

Given that mass confiscations cannot be enacted as they have been in other English-speaking countries, we must look beyond the easily-supplied platitudes about guns and examine whether other factors in American culture contribute to these kinds of events. Perhaps in doing so we may save lives in the future.

Unfortunately, we might look no further than the influence of the American media industry, and their influence in encouraging disaffected young people to take up arms against their countrymen.

Unfortunately, our idolisation of mass shooters runs deep. Bob Geldof’s I Don’t Like Mondays directly quotes a 1979 mass shooter talking about her motives; the blood of slain school staff serving as the link to a chart-topper. The perpetrators of the Columbine massacre are still venerated in online communities, validated by the media’s initial erroneous portrayal of them as bullied outcasts seeking vindication against their tormentors; their deranged diaries are available to purchase on Amazon.com.

When the media have turned the sickest among us into heroes, is it any wonder that copycats follow in their footsteps, desperate for the attention that their crimes provide?

Media and political fixation on the method of delivery also caused the variety of mass shooting weapons to narrow. The Cleveland Elementary School shooting was committed with a Ruger 10/22, Columbine with handguns and shotguns, and the Virginia Tech shooting, for a while the deadliest shooting in American history, with two handguns. Following the media frenzy over Sandy Hook and Aurora, it seems that a larger proportion of mass shootings have been committed with AR-15s – at least, that’s how the media would portray it.

Could the media, unintentionally or not, be actively promoting this rifle as a mass shooter’s weapon of choice? Could mass shooters see the use of an AR-15 as the surest way to gain publicity for their twisted causes? Could the media, by their practices in covering mass shootings, be actively encouraging shooters?

In contrast to the Werther Effect, the Papageno Effect, named for the character in Mozart’s The Magic Flute who receives support from friends, describes the downward push on suicide rates following reporting that focuses on hope and triumph over struggles. Media organisations need to black out the identities of mass shooters and make no speculation as to their motives. Publicity and an endless investigation into their manifestos is exactly what these people want to secure a place in history for themselves and their ideas.

If a news story must be run, let it focus on the heroic actions of witnesses on-site or, following the Papageno Effect, let it be about those who struggled with the urge toward destruction and the ways they escaped their darkness.

The news media industry once successfully reformed themselves to ensure a reduction of suicide deaths for which they were responsible. Are they willing to do the same for mass shootings?

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