LONDON — Whenever there’s a sensational crime at home or abroad, the British media look for evidence that the consumption of violent entertainment led to the killer’s actions.
That trend continued with U.K. coverage of Sandy Hook. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London’s City U. and a former editor of the Mirror, labels it a media “moral panic” that follows shocking crimes.
In 1993, two 10-year-old boys abducted, tortured and murdered a Liverpool toddler, and the media claimed the killers had been inspired by watching the film “Child’s Play 3.” Detectives later reported it was unlikely the boys had access to the film. After Michael Ryan shot and killed 16 people in Hungerford, England, in 1987, some reports in the press claimed he was obsessed with the film “First Blood.”
“A knee-jerk press response to any massacre in Britain is ‘this person has access to these things and that must have played a part,’ ” says Greenslade. “We mustn’t forget there were serial killers before there were videos.”
Despite skepticism in the academic community about a link between violent media and real-life violence, the U.K.’s tabloids have no qualms about establishing a connection. The Sandy Hook massacre received blanket coverage in the U.K., stoked in part by the fact that one of the victims was British. Four days after the murders, the Sun ran a front-page exclusive in which it claimed gunman Adam Lanza “spent hours playing bloodthirsty computer games such as ‘Call of Duty’ and obsessively studying weapons in the basement at his mum’s home.” Its source was the family’s plumber.
The story also quoted psychologist Teresa Bliss as saying that vidgames like “Call of Duty” can lead children to become more immune to violence and death. The Sun then referred to past allegations that mass murderers Anders Breivik and Mohammed Merah, responsible for killings in Norway and Toulouse, France, respectively, played “Call of Duty.
The Daily Express singled out the game “Dynasty Warriors.” And the Daily Mail cited a 2008 study called Grand Theft Childhood, which maintained that 60% of schoolboys who played a videogame above their age limit hit someone, compared with 39% of those who did not
Mic Wright, chief tech blogger for the Daily Telegraph, was one of the few Brit journos who took a different view: “Virtual guns don’t kill people, real ones do. To assume that if someone plays a game too many times they will go out and commit atrocious acts is to fundamentally misunder stand the human mind.
Despite the tendency in some tabloids to look for a Hollywood angle to these events, other media outlets have reached different conclusions about the cause of the Newtown tragedy: gun culture. “There have been attempts to show that it’s really about the frontier spirit and about the idea that (the gun) represents freedom,” Greenslade says.