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Mercenary Media and the Hawthorne Effect

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As nearly everyone in the United States now knows, On April 16, 2007, around 7:15am, Cho Seung-Hui murdered two students in a dormitory on the campus of Virginia Tech. Two hours later, he entered Norris Hall and began his now infamous shooting rampage.

What was Cho doing in the two hours between incidents? Initially, experts thought he might have been biding his time, making plans, and even hiding from authorities.

In actuality, Cho spent the time assembling and mailing what Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News termed his “multimedia manifesto.” I believe it was more accurately described by Wall Street Journal Opinion columnist Peggy Noonan as the “self-serving meanderings of a crazy, self-indulgent narcissist.” Once Cho’s package had been mailed, he returned to campus where he chained some of Norris Hall’s doors from the inside and began a shooting spree that claimed the lives of an additional 30 students.

Unfortunately, shortly after NBC received the package from Cho, they chose to air some of what he had sent to them, knowing that it meant a guaranteed ratings boost in the highly competitive nightly news market. As expected, NBC Nightly News scored a ratings triumph for that evening with a 7.4 rating/15 share, easily beating ABC and soundly trumping CBS.

Though NBC executives remain unsure as to why the package was mailed to their network, they defend their decision to air Cho’s media. Many question the decision, including Brian Williams who the New York Times reports as saying, “[t]his was a sick business tonight, going on the air with this.”

Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and ABC News consultant said, on Good Morning America, “If anybody cares about the victims in Blacksburg and if anybody cares about their children, stop showing this video now. Take it off the Internet. This is a social catastrophe. Showing the video is a social catastrophe.” Welner went on to say that Cho’s rants do nothing to aid in our understanding of the crime and, instead, validate his delusional behavior. Local police and federal investigators reportedly concur with the final portion of Welner’s assessment.

Some studies suggest that perhaps Mr. Welner did not go far enough in describing the negative impact of NBC’s decision. Research regarding a certain “effect” conducted by Harvard University back in the mid-to-late 1920’s, which researchers later dubbed the “Hawthorne Effect,” indicates that the short-term ratings boost NBC Nightly News received may translate into a long-term problem for everyone else.

Briefly, the Hawthorne Effect is a phenomenon where behavior is influenced and/or changed following new or increased attention from others. The “others” generally refers to researchers who, in 1924 were trying to find ways to positively affect the performance of factory workers. What the researchers found was that any scrutiny of their behaviors and/or working environment inevitably led to an increase in the performance of the factory workers.

The initial studies conducted at the Hawthorne Works factory complex ran from 1924 to 1932, but numerous other studies of this phenomenon broadened the definition of the Hawthorne Effect to mean that people’s behavior and performance almost always changes following any new or increased attention.

The implication here is that a group or organization can increase certain behaviors through the increased attention given to any person or even to a particular phenomenon. Based on this research, there can be little doubt that the mainstream media projects a similar Hawthorne-like influence over anything or anyone it chooses to focus upon.

This point was perfectly illustrated during the Oprah Winfrey show on April 18, just two days after the shooting had occurred on the Virginia Tech campus. At one point during the show, Oprah spoke with guests Darrell and Craig Scott, father and brother of Rachel Scott. Rachel was one of the first to be gunned down at Columbine High almost eight years ago. Darrell and Craig have spent the past eight years traveling to different schools to speak with students in the hope of preventing future shootings.

During their time on Oprah, both men were emphasizing the choices that are made both by societies and news organizations. Craig commented that his big concern is “the attention and focus that’s put on the shooter. ‘It’s the most bloody, the biggest, the record…’ and records can be broken. And I have found students that actually idolize the two shooters at Columbine.”

Ironically, shortly after Oprah, NBC announced it had received Cho’s package. That same evening, NBC chose to do exactly what Darrell and Craig Scott advised against: they placed all — or almost all — of their attention on the shooter.

In their subsequent reports, NBC noted at least two references to Columbine on the part of Cho, who referred to them at one point as “martyrs.” Unfortunately, NBC’s decision to focus on Cho and to publish his “manifesto” will no doubt make him a martyr to other disturbed individuals who will, no doubt, try to “break his record.”

The Hawthorne Effect dictates that the media’s focus on the negative behaviors exhibited by Cho and other mass murderers will almost certainly encourage those same behaviors in others. Mass media as a whole generally tends to focus more on the negative and, in this way, may actually be encouraging more negative behaviors. This is good for business perhaps, but bad for society.

Based on what we know regarding positive and negative behaviors and our ability to influence those behaviors, it is possible that NBC’s decision will help fuel the fire of the next murder spree. Jack Dunphy, National Review columnist and former police officer, called NBC’s decision “mercenary,” underscoring the fact that airing Cho’s tapes, writings, and photos gives him “in death that which was denied him in life: attention, power, and even sympathy.”

Dunphy goes on to express his belief that, “in America today one need not read them to know there are websites where even now can be found expressions of sympathy for a man whose 32 victims have yet to be buried.” Steve Flaherty, Virginia’s police superintendent, also expressed his disappointment that Cho’s images were broadcast. “I’m sorry that you all were exposed to these images,” he was quoted as saying.

If we know with such a high degree of certainty that the media in general has the formidable ability to influence behavior positively or negatively, what then does this say of their responsibility?

All speculation aside regarding the media’s solemn duties to society, it is interesting to note that Cho Seung-Hui, one undeniably troubled young man, was able to manipulate so much of the mainstream media establishment, thus achieving a level of fame that he otherwise would never have expected to gain. How many out there know the names of even a single one of Cho’s 32 victims, or any of the names of survivors who managed to escape his killing spree for that matter?

Mention the names of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and many would likely know that these are the names of the two boys who gunned down their fellow students at Columbine High, but if the name of Rachel Joy Scott were to be mentioned to those same individuals, would anyone know of this young lady’s heroic example? Do you? Unfortunately, the answer is likely to be “no,” and now we know how truly serious our problem has become.

The innocent and the brave victims of Columbine and now Virginia Tech are quickly forgotten, or were never known in the first place. Meanwhile the worst elements of our society, and their worst actions, are elevated.

The upshot of the relevant research on human behavior is this: to focus on depravity is not only to raise awareness of it, but also to create more instances of it in the future; a negative pattern of increasing negativity.

This is good for the media business and bad for society.

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