As an example of how brutal domestic violence can be, in February 2020, a Brisbane, Australia, woman named Hannah Clarke became a household name when her ex-husband violated a protective order and killed her and her three children by dousing them with gasoline and lighting them on fire in the family car. Although badly burned himself, the man then exited the vehicle with a knife and tried to prevent paramedics and bystanders from putting out the fire before killing himself with the knife in his hand. The high-profile incident received graphic coverage from the media in Queensland and beyond.
A year and a half later, a study out of the University of Queensland discovered a direct link between the media coverage of Hannah Clarke and a string of copycat acts of domestic violence occurring in the following months across Queensland, with perpetrators burning or attempting to burn their partners or ex-partners. This phenomenon raises an important question: When high-profile domestic violence cases make headlines, can it lead to copycat situations? What causes the so-called “copycat effect” in these situations, and more importantly, what, if anything, can be done to mitigate this effect?
The Copycat Phenomenon and the Media’s Role
The copycat effect has been observed and studied in various aspects of human behavior. While hard evidence is elusive, the copycat effect is viewed as a form of social contagion where people imitate behaviors they observe in the media or their immediate environment. Researchers have seen this dynamic at work consistently when studying what is known as the “Werther effect,” the phenomenon in which numerous copycat suicides tend to occur in the wake of media coverage of a suicide.
The Queensland study aside, ample evidence linking high-profile domestic violence cases to an increase in similar behaviors is scarce. However, several studies have suggested that exposure to violence—in real life or media—can also foster aggressive behavior. We see this effect most notably in the fact that children impacted by domestic violence are at higher risk of becoming violent themselves. The question is whether sensationalized media coverage can similarly affect the psyche.
Another psychological theory known as social learning theory tends to back up this notion. Social learning theory addresses the idea that we learn behaviors based on our environment and through observation of others. We see this most prominently in the simple concept of children modeling their parents’ examples. Still, with the prominence of media in our world, it’s equally likely that people may imitate the behavior of those in the public eye, including violent behavior. Therefore, it is possible that media coverage of domestic violence cases can lead to an increase in similar incidents.
Implications for Policymakers
Indeed, the media plays a crucial role in shaping public perception of domestic cases–and it certainly does some good by raising awareness of the problem. As a general rule, if the press did not report on the proliferation of domestic violence, many people wouldn’t even know it was an issue in our society. However, the pitfall of modern media is the temptation to sensationalize events in an attempt to compete, gain higher ratings, garner more clicks, etc. As we saw in the case of Hannah Clarke, the depiction of domestic violence in the media can sometimes reduce the issue’s complexities to mere sensationalism. It’s more likely to contribute to the copycat effect when this happens.
These findings have important policy implications. It is crucial for policymakers to consider how the media portrays domestic violence cases, particularly high-profile cases involving celebrities and public figures. While no one would question the importance of First Amendment rights here, policymakers can still work with the media to ensure that reporting on these cases is responsible and ethical. This includes framing the coverage to highlight the severity of the issue and the need for prevention and intervention rather than glamorizing or sensationalizing the violence. By working together, policymakers and the media can create a culture that discourages domestic violence and supports victims.
Implications for Those Prone to Domestic Violence
If the copycat effect is real–and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t–the other factor to consider is how high-profile acts of violence can affect individuals, particularly people at higher risk for committing domestic violence. If the media coverage of high-profile cases does lead to an increase in similar incidents, then individuals who are already prone to committing domestic violence may be more likely to do so. While no court would ever entertain a defense of “the media made me do it,” it stands to reason that if you have anger management issues and/or have been exposed to trauma or violence, being overexposed to media coverage of domestic violence has the potential to nudge you over the line in tense situations with someone you love. While being aware of this risk can help reduce the risk, if you have a history of domestic violence or have been previously charged with domestic violence crimes, you’re encouraged to seek professional assistance to address any underlying issues and learn healthy coping skills. With the help of therapy, you can break the cycle of violence and build healthy relationships.
Another important question is whether (or how) the copycat effect could shape our legal systems and how domestic violence crimes are prosecuted. One way legislators can address this issue is by prioritizing rehabilitation and education rather than solely focusing on punishment for domestic violence. While California law is particularly strict on domestic violence (and some might criticize it as too punitive), it does offer domestic violence offenders the opportunity to participate in court-mandated programs, such as anger management, counseling, and substance abuse treatment. These programs can help individuals address any underlying issues and prevent future incidents of violence.
Regardless of any underlying causes, if you’ve recently been arrested for domestic battery, stalking, or other domestic violence crimes in Los Angeles, you need a compassionate domestic violence defense attorney in your corner to help you navigate the immediate charges even as you consider ways to prevent further occurrences. Call our offices to schedule a consultation.