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Sunday, May 4, 2008

MEDIA MIX

The role of the media in tulip massacres and suicide


Since late March there has been a rash of vandalism directed against flowers. Tulips, in particular, have been cut, uprooted or trampled in public places. The news trail seems to originate during the most recent cherry blossom season, when eight young trees were found destroyed in West Tokyo's Koganei district, and shortly thereafter in Fukuoka branches on 10 trees were cut off. On April 1, in the same city, somebody in a car ran over 2,000 tulips.

The story reached its apex with that infamous surveillance camera video of a salaryman whacking tulips as he walked down the main street of Maebashi, in Gunma Prefecture, on the night of April 18. The video received attention because it put a face to the destruction. No TV show or newspaper masked the man's features; in fact, the visual evidence was accompanied by the phone number of the Maebashi police so that anyone who recognized the perpetrator could inform on him.

The media is using the video to help apprehend a man who did a bad thing, but to what extent does the video also provoke others into doing the bad thing themselves? Seeing the man dressed in a nice suit, walking down the street and laying into the tulips with his umbrella, I wondered what his day had been like. He may have been a habitual tulip-whacker, or he may have simply given in to a violent impulse this one time, projecting his supervisor's face onto innocent flowers perhaps. At any rate, tulip massacres continued in Maebashi after the video was posted, and 53 were destroyed at an elementary school in Fukushima last Monday, the same day a group of junior-high-school students confessed to flower vandalism in Niigata.

By definition, copycat crimes are caused by the spread of information, so the media are deemed accessories. Consequently, when copycat crimes occur, newspapers and TV stations have to weigh their right to report against their responsibilities as public institutions.

Tulips are nice, but they're not people. A close look at the news for the past month or so turns up more troubling copycat crimes. Needles have been found in convenience-store baked goods in various places, and following the gyoza scare earlier this year more food products have been contaminated with poisonous agricultural chemicals, though no deaths or serious injuries have been reported as a result. These incidents received relatively low-key coverage, but is that due to their presumed lack of newsworthiness or to self-restraint on the part of the reporting media? Shouldn't these crimes receive more coverage to warn people about possibly tainted food products?

This sort of question takes on real weight with regard to the most problematic serial phenomenon of recent months: The use of hydrogen sulfide by suicides. More than a year ago, a Web site posted a method for producing the deadly gas by mixing common household products. In March 2007, a 24-year-old male student in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, killed himself using the method and the media covered both the incident and the Web site. Hydrogen-sulfide suicides have since escalated — NHK reported that there were about 80 in April alone. The appeal of the method is that it is supposedly painless and leaves a beautiful corpse, though various experts have been quoted as saying that isn't true; that, in fact, people who inhale the deadly gas suffer and that it turns their skin green.

The suicide-prevention organization Lifelink has asked the media not to report on the trend for fear it would spur more suicides, and many news organizations obliged. Then, earlier this spring, a young man used the method to end his life in his bathroom and, despite a sign on the door warning that there was deadly gas present, his father entered and was immediately overcome. He died, too. Last month, when a 14-year-old girl in Kochi killed herself with the gas in her own bathroom, the apartment building where she resided had to be evacuated until the gas was cleared.

This aspect of the hydrogen-sulfide method changes the rules of coverage. More recent reports seem to be telling potential suicides that using the gas to end their own lives is irresponsible because it may also harm others. It's a sort of rebuke, and Lifelink has complained that such coverage trivializes the reasons for suicide by reducing the story to a methodology.

There are some 30,000 suicides a year in Japan. That averages out to about 80 a day, which means the vast majority aren't reported in the news. Though Lifelink says that people who are only considering suicide might tip over the edge when they hear about hydrogen sulfide, it's impossible to determine if the people who resorted to the method would have still killed themselves if they hadn't had access to the poison-gas recipe. Last week, the National Police Agency asked Internet providers to delete information about ways to prepare hydrogen sulfide.

In an editorial, the Mainichi Shimbun mentioned that copycat suicides used to be set off by iconic triggers — a waterfall in Nikko a hundred years ago, an idol singer who threw herself from a building in the 1980s — but that now they're associated with methods thanks to the "magic power of the Internet": Before hydrogen sulfide, the most fashionable method was carbon monoxide-producing charcoal burners.

There is no sure way to prevent copycat phenomena in a free society, though it might help if the media didn't sensationalize certain sorts of behavior. The most disturbing development in this regard is the series of indiscriminate homicides — at least three this year — carried out by men who said they killed because they wanted to receive the death penalty.

Advocates of capital punishment claim it is a deterrent to murder, and, while many disagree, nobody ever imagined it would be used as a pretext for killing. Some people who want out of this life prefer to go in a big way.



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