No one fully understands what happened in Springfield, Ore. on Thursday or in Jonesboro, Ark,. in March, and perhaps we never will. But certain facts about how the media operate and what the media now regularly invite us to share as a culture are worthy of consideration.
I'm not saying that the media directly caused these outrageous acts. But one has to wonder if such events would have happened were we living in the media environment of the 1890s, or even the 1950s.
The question that must be answered is why these events are happening now?
Today's extensive media coverage is surely fueling the likelihood of the next school shooting by providing a model for the direct expression of disturbed fantasies. And what quicker way for a lonely and troubled youth to suddenly gain the attention he desperately seeks than to commit a heinous act that the mass media have demonstrated will garner intense coverage, broadcasting the once unknown perpetrator's name hundreds of times to every corner of the nation?
Consider, too, what all this coverage is doing to the generational self-image of young people aged 10 to 15. My 12-year-old son's friends talk about how they are the "psycho" generation.
Ten isolated youths run very badly amok over a few months and suddenly people are talking of an epidemic, saddling a good chunk of contemporary youths with a completely undeserved image of themselves as a group, one that they may well carry for years to come.
The National Institute of Mental Health concluded more than 25 years ago that while the great majority of people are not made more violent by violent media, there are people who are more psychologically at risk than others and that the media do play a role in their behavior. Consider that even if that proportion is as low as 1 out of every 100,000 people, we are left with 2,700 such people in the US. It only took three to wreak havoc in Jonesboro and Springfield.
Is it more or less probable that the school shootings would occur in a society that traffics constantly in extraordinarily violent media images compared, say, with a society where such images don't occur at all? Would they have been less likely to occur were, say, even one-tenth of all the shooting deaths we each witness in our fictional media each year replaced by images and storylines where people worked to resolve their differences nonviolently, through talk and negotiation?
What should we find more shameful in contemporary American society: three disturbed boys opening fire on a group of innocent classmates, or the regular, horrific images that adults working in the media industries churn out expressly for young people to experience?
It is true that millions of parents need to exercise more responsibility. But no parent can be present all the time, or at the neighbor's.
What can be done?
First, news outlets of all kinds might follow the lead of the Chicago Sun-Times' very deliberate decision to run the Springfield story on Pages 2 and 3. They were deluged with congratulations, with one reader e-mailing, "Brace yourself for accusations of responsible journalism."
Second, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission should step up political and legal pressure to more effectively limit and regulate the production and distribution of media violence. Third, consumers should know that economic boycotts can be effective when directed toward media excess. Fourth, educators with parents - through PTAs, religious and scouting groups - can become more active in instituting formal programs of media education that help get young people to think more critically about their media choices. Such programs are now required of all students in Australia, and in Grades 7 to 12 throughout large parts of Canada and England.
No one can predict or readily prevent the next episode of some sad, alienated person running about with a loaded weapon.
But we can do something about children and adults being regularly exposed to media images that can't help but be imitated by the most at-risk members of society while also desensitizing many more audience members to the pain and misery of others.
* Robert W. Kubey is associate professor of communication at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. His most recent book is "Media Literacy in the Information Age" (Transaction, 1997).