Back in 1774, one of the masterpieces of German literature, Gothe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, was met with great success. At the end of this epistolary novella, the titular character commits suicide.
Allegedly, following Werther‘s diffusion, two thousand young men committed suicide. It has come to be called the Werther effect—from the 1974 paper by David Philips, who observed spikes in suicide rates following an heavily publicized suicide, such as Dr.Ward or Marylin Monroe.
Well, if publicized suicides cause imitation, wouldn’t it make sense that it would be better not to publicize them? As a matter of fact, wouldn’t it make sense not to publicize a lot of things? For instance, not to publicize crimes committed by Syrian refugees in Germany, in order not to stimulate imitation of them? Or, worse, retaliation?
Well, the Werther effect only describes suicides, but it’s not a novel concept. At very least I can remember Micheal Moore saying something to that effect in Bowling for Columbine. Moore’s his oscar-winning documentary blames gun violence in the US on the “fear” felt by Americans, which in turn is spurred by biased news deliberately exaggerating the amount of violent crime and especially crime committed by blacks.
I can’t help but think of Moore when I think of news stories about refugees getting heavily censored on Reddit or when a journalist chooses to frame a suicidal attack by a Syrian refugee as “Syrian Refugee Killed in Blast in Germany, 12 Wounded”.
Does that actually help? Well, I’d argue it does more harm than good. The Straisand effect is very much in action here, and “journalist deliberately muddles truth” tends to become newsworthy itself on social media, possibly giving more resonance to the events.
Well, at least we can see good intentions in this kind of system? I’d argue against that, too. Moore’s argument, the way I see it, is about sensationalism. I have a hard time reading his argument as a request to be selective in reporting, rather he seems to be encouraging less sensationalism. Not that journalist listened.
If there is a Werther effect, to avoid its negative effects we would be better off just writing the truth, avoiding clickbait. Perhaps trying to give some space to positive news.
There must be some of those. Right?