Roger Ebert got it right a long time ago.
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.
“The Alex Teves Challenge”
The goal is to take away a potential piece of a complex puzzle of motivating factors that individuals may seek to commit mass shootings. CHALLENGE THE MEDIA to stop using the name and likeness of mass shooters, limiting notoriety and infamy, a potentially motivating factor in mass shootings and copycat crimes.
“The Alex Teves Challenge” pushes the media to play down the suspects in mass shootings. The challenge to media organizations:
• Refuse to promote the identity of an alleged assailant by withholding their name and likeness from all forms of public communication.
• Acknowledge that the prospect of infamy could serve as a partial motivating factor for disturbed individuals to cause the death of innocent victims.
• Concur that individual names and likenesses are irrelevant to media coverage of such acts, where an emphasis should be placed on specific details of the act, alleged assailant’s background, and possible motivations.
• Raise public awareness of the root cause for such acts, as to increase the likelihood of their future prevention.
• Agree that in cases where an alleged assailant is still at large, their name and likeness should be published to aid in the capture and incarceration of this individual. Once incarcerated, the assailant’s name and likeness will be withheld from future communications.
• Recognize that The Alex Teves Challenge is an initial step in the process of eliminating random acts of mass violence. As such, we agree to promote data and analysis from experts in mental health, public safety, and other relevant professions, where this will support further steps in the elimination of this type of criminal behavior.