Professor Craig Jackson

Professor Craig Jackson

Professor Craig Jackson – Head of Psychology

It is a fact of journalism that we all know: when a spree-killer shoots or stabs multiple victims and secures a large number of fatalities, the story receives serious news coverage, and such coverage is exacerbated if the shooter remains at large and local police are issuing ‘active shooter’ notices to the public. TV news stations will usually drop the majority of their pre-planned stories and features in order to follow the ongoing tragic developments. That is simply how news works in the 24-hour age.

It is a simple premise I also work on: when a spree killer story receives heavy news coverage, it is not a sensible idea to repeatedly show any video footage of the shooter that the newsroom may have acquired. There is no code of conduct that stops broadcasters from doing this by the way. One thing that is highly likely to influence an angry, hostile individual (who may have already harboured thoughts and fantasies about by spree-killing and may be slowly nudging towards doing so) into committing a spree killing, is to see the attention and infamy given to other spree killers. This becomes more intoxicating and seductive if the original spree killer is able to air their views and frustrations when the news show clips they uploaded, or shows their ‘manifestos’. The great majority of spree-killers are narcissistic, and seeing such infamy achieved by others ‘like them’ is so compelling that most of us cannot possibly understand how it feels.

Spree-killers have traditionally been influenced by other killings they see in the news; but now they are able to be influenced by other killers themselves and their video rhetoric. When making the channel 5 series ‘Killing Spree’ it was a condition of mine that I would not mention the first names of the killers when speaking on camera. This is something I adhere to when contributing to news coverage too. The ability of spree-killers to influence other spree-killers is clear to me. The Hungerford massacre perpetrated by Michael Ryan (when he killed 16 people, and wounded 15 others on Saturday 17 August 1987) occurred just 10 days after the Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne (perpetrated by a former army cadet and solider Julian Knight who killed 7 and wounded 19 others) on Sunday 9 August 1987. The Hoddle Street shootings received heavy news coverage in the UK from both the BBC and ITV at the time. It is no coincidence that Ryan dressed in military clothing like Knight – and walked the streets during his spree rather than hiding or finding a tactical vantage point. The Hoddle Street-Hungerford link was not a one-off. After killing 16 children and 1 teacher in his spree at Dunblane Prmary School on Wednesday 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton received world-wide coverage, and also influenced a spree-shooter on the other side of the world. Twenty-two year old Martyn Bryant killed 35 and wounded 23 others in a spree-attack in and around Port Arthur in Tasmania on 28 and 29 April 1996. When taken alive and in immediate captivity, he told police that he “wanted to beat that Dunblane guy’s record”. Further evidence comes from Raoul Moat, the wannabe spree killer who, before embarking on a rampage in July 2010 that saw one person killed, one attempted murder, and another serious injury, Moat wrote that he would not be going on a spree and shooting old ladies in woolly hats like that bloke in Cumbria – a direct reference to the spree-killings by Derrick Bird one month earlier who killed 12 people and injured 11 others in his spree on 2 June 2010.

Anders Breivik who perpetrated the Oslo bomb killing 8, and then attacked teenagers on the island of Utoya that saw 69 more killed, wrote a manifesto and posed for pictures in his combat gear. In the absence of any pre-existing video of him, news coverage would often show his combat-ready pictures. There is no doubt that those photos of him, in black wetsuit with rifle raised, would have psychological appeal to countless angry isolated individuals who also felt they had a grievance to settle. Breivik had made a ‘pre-spree PR friendly photo’ that would influence many. It could be a coincidence, but one year and one day after Breivik’s shootings, James Holmes, after having set bombs at his home, dressed in black combat gear then entered the Century 16 plaza in Aurora, Colorado on 20 July 2012 and shot and killed 12 people, wounding dozens more, before being captured. He too, like Brevik has endured months of infamy and attention in courtroom debates regarding his sanity and motives. There is no greater attention for a spree-killer than the courtroom media circus that follows their crimes.

After the Virginia Tech massacre on 16 April 2007 by Seng Hui-Cho, who killed 32 university students and injured dozens more, his self-made videos and photos of him brandishing weapons and ranting to camera about his hatred for other students arrived at the offices of ABC and NBC the next day. Thankfully the news agencies quickly pulled such video clips from their news coverage – and to my knowledge, no copycat spree-killings occurred within the following few weeks of the tragedy – possibly because Cho’s infamy and platform to justify his killings was stymied.

Since the emergence of the phenomenon of YouTube and online video posting, many disgruntled, angry and blame-raddled individuals post their hate-filled videos and ‘manifestos’ online. So what of Elliot Rodger, the so-called ‘Virgin Killer’ who killed 5 and injured several more during his spree just over two weeks ago, on the weekend of Memorial Day? He made countless videos that he posted to YouTube, as well as compiling a 1400 page ‘manifesto’ that he called ‘the twisted world of Elliot Rodger’ which he emailed around, pre-spree. His videos and particularly his writings are disturbing for many reasons, and warrant a full analysis separate to this in order to get into the psychological complexity of his hatred. Needless to say, on the surface, his videos and writings are long-winded pieces of a young man whining and complaining that he is unable to have sex, even though he truly believes he deserves to, all the while being unable to understand why lesser-men than him are able to do so. He speaks of the “injustice of it all” so many times in his racist and dystopian rants, without realising how ironic his use of those words are. I am sure nobody outside of the PUAhate chat (pick up artist) forums and immature young boys find his words compelling or convincing.

However, what is more troubling is the amount of airtime his videos were given by TV news channels over the following three days. TV news bulletins and channels, including all of the terrestrial UK channels and SKY news, freely used clips of his self-assured and confident pieces to camera (along with the accompanying audio) that he filmed while sitting in the Californian sunset in his BMW. He was a good looking young man and clearly verbally eloquent in his ability to ‘justify’ what he was about to do. The heavy use of these clips in the subsequent news coverage provided him with some of the slickest post-mortem PR available. Rodger knew the value of the visual to his generation. On the BBC news on Saturday evening (one day after the killings) the video clip of Rodger sitting in his car was used three times in fifteen minutes. There is little doubt that other hostile and isolated people as angry as Rodger have seen his videos in full by now (they are still available on YouTube) having been introduced to them via the TV news.

The timeline of events since Rodger’s spree-killing has been disturbing, with three other active-shooter incidents occurring in the two weeks since (New Brunswick in Canada had a male military-type spree-shooter who killed three police officers and wounded two more, 11 days after Santa Barbara; two days after that a male spree-shooter killed 1 and wounded 2 others on a Seattle College campus before being over-powered; and three days after that, two spree-shooters killed three others and then themselves in a shopping centre in Las Vegas). Case-linkage being what it is, it may be impossible to prove any links or influences between the four spree-killing incidents discussed here, but circumstances often do speak for themselves. One of the most media savvy spree-killers we have seen leaves a dense canon of hate-material behind him, secures massive global news coverage of his killing-spree, and then has his views aired widely by those news channels. Within two weeks, four more angry and isolated shooters try to settle their grievances with society by killing strangers in public places.

I am confident to say that showing pre-spree materials on the news coverage of sprees does encourage the fatal actions of some wannabe copycat spree-killers, but also, that by deciding not to show such materials when they exist can also make copycat spree-killings less likely to occur. Even by showing a hard copy of any killer’s ‘manifesto’ on camera, it gives a legitimacy to it and the subsequent killings that it does not deserve. I have read Elliot Rodger’s ‘twisted world’ manifesto (as well as a few others I have come across) but his is the most disagreeable self-pitying and pathetic piece of solipsism I have seen – and as such I have refused to be seen holding it on camera – simply to deny it any ability to influence others.

Professor Craig Jackson was a consultant on the documentary ‘The Virgin Killer’ to be broadcast on Channel 4 at 22:05 on Sunday 15 June

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University