On March 3, 2010, a group of thieves managed to successfully pay homage to the film Mission: Impossible by breaking into a New Jersey Best Buy via a hole they created in the roof and lowering themselves into the store to steal $26,000 worth of Apple computers. While admittedly this crime is almost humorous, it is just one of many examples of copycat crimes, a rapidly-growing problem with which the justice system is faced.
While some of the most famous copycat crimes are said to be real-life adaptions of scenarios from books, movies, or TV (e.g., Timothy McVeigh claims he was inspired to perpetrate the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 by the film Red Dawn), there is also no shortage of crimes that imitate earlier crimes that received broad media coverage.
It’s a difficult issue to navigate. When does media coverage of a crime cross the line from keeping the public aware of what’s happening in their communities without being gratuitous and therefore more likely to invite imitations? Will we see the recent kidnapping, rape, and murder of Chelsea King duplicated? (Personally, I found all the coverage of that story to this point to be discerning in what details it disclosed, but arguably, criminals don’t need all the gruesome details to be encouraged to commit an identical crime.) Should “full details” stories such as those seen on the shows “60 Minutes” or “Dateline NBC” be prohibited because of their borderline exploitative nature and therefore seemingly greater potential to encourage copycat crimes?
How can mainstream media handle coverage of crime in a way that is both respectful to their audience’s right to be informed and yet is not intemperate?