Copycat crime is an offense committed by someone who is inspired by copying a felony described in fiction or reported in the media. The long-term interest in media effect on adolescents requires serious empirical research. However, copycat crime research has been complicated due to the lack of the corresponding statistics. Therefore, identification of individuals at risk is still very difficult to determine and study. A few theories explaining why people commit such crimes exist. The first theory refers to the sensationalism of aggression in the media, and the second one describes the mental and criminal history of the offenders. The aims of this study are to disclose the possible reasons for committing copycat crimes and to identify the individuals from the high-risk group, who can become offenders through media exposure.
Copycat crime is a disturbing pattern, which is gaining popularity nowadays. It raises many questions and assumptions about the underlying reasons and preventive measures. The copycat effect is a phenomenon describing cruel murders or suicides committed under the impression of sensational events with the same scenario. The effect is also known as “imitation” and the “contagion effect” (Coleman, 2004).
The cultural contagion of suicidal and criminal behaviors is a grave consequence of exaggerated passion towards media sensations. With technological progress and broadened media reach, concerns have grown because media snapshots present a narrow, specific reality. They provide public with reshaped and marketed extracts, presenting only those events, which can provoke curiosity or shock in order to draw the audience’s attention. This policy explains direct criminogenic effects of copycat crime and media-oriented terrorism. The most influenced population is youth. Consequently, the youth grows up with the corroded perception of reality. It is a media generation, which is “headed by the image of a predatory violent stranger exploited by both the media and criminal justice policy makers” (Surette, 2010, p. 4). Psychologists suggest a hypothesis, according to which offenders copy crimes, which previously received attention in the media, in order to get the same reward. Living in the era of school shootings, celebrities’ suicide, cult deaths, and total cruelty, the youth craves for being at the center of this attention.
Thirty years ago, society did not know the copycat phenomenon existed. Sociologists and psychologists debated whether broadcasting of cruelty and violence could lead to new cruelty. The media denied the linkage. However, the truth has become obvious lately. People have finally realized the scope of the copycat effect. The media are driven by stories of murder and death. The motto of the century is “Happy stories do not sell, but death does”. The media constantly invent new ways of holding an audience in rapture and create a thriving atmosphere for the copycat crimes.
In psychological terms, depersonalization takes its place, a state when thoughts and feelings of an individual seem unreal or strangely altered. Loss of identity is a natural human inhibition against murdering. In order to reduce the feeling, one adopts a persona, a means to commit an atrocity. Losing identity is a means through which uncharacteristically cruel actions can be taken. Copycats often have their agenda in a crime but look for tying it to other events that received publicity. In other words, they seek for any opportunity to bask in the glory of someone famous. When a crime gets media attention, its notoriety becomes a strong motivating factor. However, media representatives do not accept the fact that sensational coverage of mass murders makes them more common. The publicity has always prompted imitators, especially when it goes about acts of unmotivated aggression. For some people, negative attention is as rewarding as a positive one. They find an excuse while showing their latent hostile emotions. One should not deny the fact that copycat criminals are already in the risk group. Even if they do not copy notorious crimes, they will probably commit another crime. These emotionally immature people often have serious psychological or mental disorders. They imitate sensationalized crimes in order to draw attention to their personalities.
“A copycat suicide” is a similar phenomenon. When famous people commit suicide, their fans might be also at risk of committing self-murders. Sensationalism indirectly affects people who attempt copycat crimes of suicide (Szalavitz, 2009). Craving for attention puts these people at a risk of imitating such behavior. Copycat criminals have weak ego and difficulties in running their lives.
Professor Ray Surette examined the effect of media exposure to crime. He said that its influence remained debated, but the concern was about the influence concentrated in populations with a criminal background (Surette, 2010). For his study, Surette held an anonymous survey to prisoners at the Orange County Jail (Orlando) (Surette, 2010). The respondents were equal in number of African-Americans. The survey included questions about the criminal background of the recipients: criminal heritage, friends and neighborhoods, and their exposure to media (television, music, video games, the Internet, radio, and fiction). The goal of the research was to know whether the prisoners had ever sought a fight or a gun after reading a book or watching television or a movie. The analysis showed that sources of information interacted significantly. The more exposure the respondents had to real-world crime, the more likely they were to attempt copying a crime. However, the more they read, the less likely they were to commit a copycat crime (Surette, 2010). About one-fifth of the respondents reported the media as a highly helpful source on how to commit crimes. The most prone to report copycat crimes were young males with criminal background and low academic level. They perceived media as a reliable source with instructions on committing crimes. Surette (2010) concluded that the survey results did not support a theory of crime in the media as a direct reason for the criminal behavior. Therefore, the media are a rudder rather than a trigger (Stack, 2003).
Researchers suggest a significant influence of media on individuals who rely heavily on it, meanwhile escaping from the reality. Predisposed individuals are the primary agents of copycat behavior. Media can encourage and instruct it through different processes associated with certain behavior models, desensitization to cruelty, and changes in attitude to violence (National Research Council, 2002). Copycat crime is a persistent social phenomenon that has an impact the general crime picture by influencing crime techniques rather than criminal motivation. It results from the interaction of factors in four areas: the criminal background, media coverage, individual social factors, and copycat criminal traits. This model denotes an effect when successful notorious initial crimes become an example for copying after interacting with media coverage.
Although the experts have given the syndrome its name, it is a general theory that requires testing. Some specialists doubt that the motives of copycats can be determined before they commit a crime. They say that it is hardly possible to shape myriad factors of one’s background and personality into a single pattern (National Research Council, 2002). Due to the absence of accurate data, scientists have to merely theorize on the factors and rely on anecdotic evidence. Among these mechanisms, there are social learning, modeling processes, and imitations. Viewers learn values, which support aggression and violence.
The media are not a single crime motivator. Specialists concern media as a source of criminal inspiration for the mass; they get a third part in the proportion (1:3), after books and movies about the crime (Surette, 2010). There has been a tendency for criminals to credit a few media as a source of their crime techniques. There is a general tendency for the lawbreakers to respond positively to multiple media influences if they previously responded positively to any. However, prior research suffers methodological deficiencies and cannot be used when discussing relationships between offending youth and copycat crimes. Some experts insist that copycat offenders usually have the criminal intent before they copy a media-based pattern. The inmates often had a criminal record or were mentally ill. Unfortunately, there is no reported research examining differences between copycat and noncopycat offenders.
If there is a link between the copycat crime and the media, it refers to the concentration of media criminogenic factors in preexisting criminal population. Such offenders use media techniques to recall their criminal background. It seems that the only difference between copycat and noncopycat offenders lies in the desire of the former to seek notoriety fame (Coleman, 2004). The greater is the publicity, the stronger is the copycat effect. Offenders who hold positive attention to the media are associated with copycat behavior.
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Due to the lack of the methodological studies, the copycat effect is not considered a valid reason for court cases. Additional theoretical conceptualization is required in order to bring evidence into a complete copycat crime model. Any conclusion regarding the media causality is not possible. Recent research shows that not all juveniles with high-level media consumption display greater probabilities to commit a copycat crime. There is no relationship between low academic skills and copycat behavior. However, there have been evidences when the juveniles involved in gun offenses reported copycat behavior in their crimes. The experts state that youth does not credit media as a personal influence, but there is a small population at risk. This population cannot be identified by the demographic variables, but it holds a set of perceptions about the media, which are different to the one that noncopycat juveniles have. Media findings help copycat juveniles to postulate a copycat personality. They seek for social models often provided by the media. Restricted by the number of self-reports, experts suggest further exploration of copycat crimes in order to obtain more profound study and determine whether this effect can serve as a legal argument in the court.