As the Vernon arsonist or arsonists continue to wreak havoc on the North Okanagan, residents are searching for answers and accusations are being made.
A common accusation lately on local media comment sections and social media posts, including our own, is that media coverage of a person, like an arsonist, causes the criminal to reoffend.
In fact, some suggest that even if a large fire were to occur again in the coming days, local media should not cover the event at all.
In response, Castanet went to an expert on the topic to ask if there is a real correlation between media coverage and crime. And whether news companies should stop coverage entirely.
Former UBCO professor and current Associate Professor of Law & Society at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dr. Christopher J. Schneider, is an expert in 'Crime and media.'
He says that although it may seem like there is an obvious connection between news stories and seemingly reactive crime, there is no evidence to support the theory that news coverage causes, worsens or even decreases crime.
“I think that is an easy sort of jump or leap for commenters to be making but we can never establish this connection with absolute certainty, especially when the perpetrator or perpetrators have not been apprehended,” explains Schneider. “Until we hear from them and they say 'I saw the story on Castanet and lit the fire because of it,' we absolutely cannot say that.”
He notes that news media does play a huge role in bringing increased attention to stories like this. And that in some circumstances in the past, copy cat offenders or copy-cat arsonists have been created. But, he says the connection between the two has not been made with absolute certainty.
“Just because a story goes on the news there is no evidence to support the theory that it causes people to light fires,” says Schneider.
Castanet, along with several other North Okanagan media organizations, ran pieces on Monday noting that the arsonist had not struck for over two weeks. That same night someone struck again.
This immediately had some made blaming the media for enticing the person to strike again. But Schneider says the empirical evidence does not support such an assumption.
“At this point we don't know if it is the same person committing this arson, or persons, or copy cats, we just don't know. It makes sense for many readers and many consumer of news media that one leads to another but this is an approach that has been dismissed in academic research literature,” says Schneider.
“For all we know that person might have planned to light the fire that night and they might not have even seen, read or heard about the story.”
He says this need to blame the media, or the police or anyone really is entirely understandable. He says we, the long abiding citizens of Vernon and the Okanagan, want and need to make sense of crime.
“This is something that seems to make sense, story is on Castanet then there is a fire that night and clearly this person read the story and lit the fire and now it make sense. We can go to bed at night and sleep because we feel we understand it.”
Schnieder believes that at the end of the day the media has a role to play in providing information that affects the community. The possibility of a link between that coverage and further crime is not a reason to stop covering the story.
“The role of the media is to report what is going on and if there is a series of fires and a lull in that series that it is perfectly reasonable to report on this,” says Schneider. “The news media cannot control what other people do with their information. Their job is to put the information out there and what people do with it is beyond their control.”
He also points out that news agencies aren't the only source of information. In fact, in the world of heightened social media activity, any person in the Okanagan could have posted or tweeted or blogged about the two weeks without a fire and to blame that person would be just as ridiculous. The research done on this topic simply does not support this theory.
“We cannot say with certainty that media causes crime. Is there an influence? Ya sure. Is it influential to certain crime? Perhaps. Does it cause crime? No. Do media, TV, movies cause crime? No,” says Schneider.
Anyone with any information relating to any of the suspicious fires can call the Vernon RCMP at (250)-545-7171 or remain anonymous by calling Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477.