The first post in this series addressed general principles for identifying and analyzing possible regulatory actions that either could have prevented Sandy Hook or prevent future such events. Subsequent posts discussed, in general terms, various regulatory options including changes in physical security at elementary schools, changes in personal security at elementary schools, more stringent gun control, and changes in mental health screening and treatment.
Today we look at regulation of the press. As was the case of other alternatives, the focus here is on a pragmatic question (would regulation be effective?) and a technical one (would regulation be efficient — i.e., less costly than other alternatives of equal effectiveness?). Debating legal and constitutional matters is left to others, but such debates should be irrelevant for any regulatory alternative that would not be effective. Regulations that are ineffective have no social benefits, and it is therefore impossible for them to ever be efficient.
Press coverage of events such as Sandy Hook creates two problems. First, some individuals may commit mass murder because they desire fame. To the extent that they do, and their crimes are amply covered by the press, then it is inevitable that press coverage contributes to the supply of mass murders.
Second, press coverage may induce copycats — persons who would not commit mass murder but for the example set by others. Several newspapers have reported possible copycat incidents; we do not link to them here because it serves no constructive purpose.
There are precedents for restrictions on press coverage, such as the disclosure of the identities of juvenile suspects and alleged rape victims. Attempts to legislate these restrictions have typically run up against constitutional barriers in the US. Nonetheless, many newspapers refrain from identifying juveniles and alleged rape victims as a matter of policy. These restrictions qualify as “regulation” even though they are self-imposed. Thus, the press could, for example, decide to refrain from naming mass murderers or give them aliases that deny them fame. This would deter prospective mass murderers who seek fame and are rationally influenced by incentives.
In the Sandy Hook case, no evidence has been disclosed suggesting that Adam Lanza was motivated by a desire for fame, so the prospect of becoming famous appears unlikely to have been relevant. At the same time, the possibility cannot be ruled out because Lanza’s motives died with him. There are other cases in which the perpetrator’s desire for fame was a relevant factor. Prominent examples include Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 murdered 77 people, mostly teenagers, in Norway, and Army Major Nidal Hassan, who in 2009 murdered 13 soldiers and the unborn baby of one of them at Ft. Hood TX.
As a matter of regulatory design, an overriding problem with press regulation may be that the prospect of becoming famous by committing mass murder encourages some at the margin, but it also deters others. That would mean that whether the effectiveness of the regulation depends on whether it deters more mass murders at the margin than it incentivizes. It is only after the fact, in a specific case, that we might be able to discern what effect press attention had on the person who committed the crime. It is analytically improper, and unfair to public decision-makers, to decide what should have been done after the identity of the murderer is known and the reasons for his action are understood. Regulatory decisions must be made and implemented before the identity of any prospective mass murderer is known.