Press Club weighs in on copycat effect

Marilyn Tennissen Apr. 12, 2007, 2:00pm

FBI Agent Ann Figeuras, center, discusses the copycat phenomenon with the Press Club of Southeast Texas April 12. She was part of a media panel that included Brian Pearson of the Beaumont Enterprise, left, and David Lowell of KFDM-TV, right.

Does reporting on school "hit lists" and bomb threats add to the problem? Do daily news organizations empower the perp?

Those were the questions discussed April 12 at the monthly meeting of the Press Club of Southeast Texas. A panel of those who make the decisions about what goes in the newspaper and on the air gave the positions their various media uses to protect the public without creating a "copycat" phenomenon in the community.

Moderator Paul Bergen, news director of KBTV 4, began the event at the Entergy Building in downtown Beaumont by reading from "The Copycat Effect" by Loren Coleman.

"Media is the catalyst for spreading violence," Bergen read, and asked panel members to respond.

Miles Resnick, news director for KBMT, said his station covers all hit list stories.

"You can't choose to cover some and not others, it is better to be safe than sorry," Resnick said.

But, Resnick said, it is a little different when it comes to bomb threats. He referred to a recent bomb threat at the Lumberton Wal-Mart.

"When there are 500 people on the street outside Wal-Mart, the public wants to know what was happening. We need to report on it when it becomes a public display," he said.

When it comes to children's safety, Harold Mann, news director of KLVI Radio, said he takes no chances.

"Hit lists can turn out to be a joke, but at what point do you say 'let's not cover it.' What if it turns out to be real?" Mann said. "After a recent bomb threat at Marshall Middle School, we gave coverage to (Superintendant) Dr. Carroll Thomas, who was letting the kids know how serious it is, that it's not a joke."

Panelist Ann Figueras, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Invesigation, said since Sept. 11, 2001, any threat is taken seriously.

"It is not a joke," Figueras said. "The laws have changed since 2001. You can be charged as a domestic terrorist for making a bomb threat. When I talk to schools, the students are shocked when I tell them stories about 14 year olds being taken away in handcuffs. Suddenly your not going to the college of your dreams because you have a felony conviction. Threats are not tolerated," she said.

David Lowell, program director of KFDM-TV, said recent coverage of hit lists in Lumberton became an ongoing story after parents learned that the school knew about the list for a week before parents were notified.

Print media has different ways to handle copycat bomb threats and hit lists, Brian Pearson, managing editor of the Beaumont Enterprise, said.

"We can give something coverage, but play it in a two-inch story in the back of the paper," Pearson said. "Generally, there is a short lifespan to the copycats. They don't continue."

Figeuras agreed, and said copycats generally peak in about seven days.

"I really can't say if the media helps or hurts the situation," she said. "It doesn't affect our investigations. We treat them seriously, even if gets annoying investigating day after day."

As for the effect publicity has on gang activity, the panelists agreed that most gang members are not generally watching the nightly news.

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