Monday, January 13, 2014

Moral hazard problem in media reporting massacres

Vijay K. Mathur

Published in Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, December 19, 2013

Ari N. Schulman published an informative report last month in the Wall Street Journal on current research concerning mass killers. It cites many psychological studies on motives of mass killers. Recently, we all have witnessed a series of massacres that psychologists characterize "as a single, typically very public event." Various researchers are of the view that most massacres, for example, at Los Angeles Airport, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and the shopping mall in New Jersey, are well thought out, planned, and occur in clusters.

Schulman reports that killers, according to the consensus, follow a "free floating template ... to resolve their rage and express their sense of personal grandiosity." There is also evidence of "suicide contagion effect" that gets attention in the media. In 1984 there were a series of suicides in the subway system in Vienna, Austria. Suicide researchers concluded that sensational reporting in the media and glorification of suicides might be the cause of the three-year epidemic. Researchers convinced media to change the coverage "by minimizing details and photos, avoiding language and simplistic explanations of motives, moving the stories from the front page and keeping the word 'suicide' out of the headlines." Subway suicides immediately dropped by 75 percent. 

These findings pose a conflict between freedom of press and media in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the public good. Psychologists' findings demonstrate that sensational coverage in media on mass killings, romanticizing killers, motives that sometimes evoke sympathy among the general public, may inadvertently bring about other potential killers who have gripes against the government, institutions, laws and regulations, and public in general. The media, motivated by aspirations to provide information to the public, can incite some potential mass killers to come out of the shadows. This effect of the media reporting on mass killers is similar to what psychologists call the "priming effect."
Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, explains in his book, "Thinking Fast and Slow," that priming effect occurs when ideas influence actions. In the recent
report by state investigators on Newtown mass murders, killer Adam Lanza supposedly "became obsessed with the 1999 Columbine High bloodbath and other such mass killings ... " Thus, the extensive coverage of mass murders primed Lanza, already suffering from behavioral and mental problems, to commit murders of his mother and 26 school children and adults in Newtown, Conn. His mother, who purchased guns for him and took him for shooting practices, further facilitated his actions.

Entertainment media also contributes to the priming effect in the name of entertainment. For the society as a whole, sensational and graphic media reporting of mass killings and killers is akin to the moral hazard problem, which economists point out in markets and in many policy actions. Simply, moral hazard arises when a beneficial action by one party may incite the receiving party to engage in behaviors that tend to negate the benefits.
The problem of moral hazard or of "hidden action" was first studied in the insurance industry, where policyholders may engage in actions unobservable to insurance companies. For example, a homeowner who buys fire insurance, covering full replacement cost of home and its contents, lacks the incentive to take precautionary measures to reduce fire danger. Hence, lack of precautions increase fire likelihood, increasing cost of insurances.

Another example is the bail-out of banks and financial institutions during the recent severe recession. To critics, bail-out poses moral hazard problems because it incentivizes them to engage in hard-to-observe risky behavior, hence, posing threats to the financial system.

Similarly, media coverage of mass killers poses a moral hazard problem. Mass killers, primed by thrilling and vivid coverage in media, negate benefits of information to the public. What is the responsibility of free media to prevent such mass killings and promote the public good? I am sure responsible media is as concerned about killings as are others. However, in light of psychological evidence, media's right to exercise freedom of press in reporting massacres, could incite unobserved killers at the margin to commit mass killings to gain notoriety.

The priming effect of mentally unstable people becomes more acute with availability of high-powered weapons with high capacity magazines. Such weapon systems mutually support mass killing instincts of mentally unstable people who have gripes against society and institutions.

The value of the free press is unquestionable. However, given emerging psychological evidence, the exercise of freedom responsibly for the public good, is also precious.

Mathur is former chairmen and professor of economics and now professor emeritus, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. His articles also appear in He also writes blogs for Standard-Examiner at,etc.

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