Are media feeding copycat suicides?

The troubling report in today's Denver Post about a rash of teen suicides in Douglas County strangely says nothing about last week's huge national story on the Florida teenager who took his own life while an audience watched via live webcast. Here's the Nov. 26 Post story. The AP dispatch on Abraham Biggs' self-murder was carried by the Denver Post online and in print beginning Nov. 21.

Copycat suicides, like copycat school shootings, are a well-documented phenomenon of the sick times we live in. Science writer Malcolm Gladwell, for example, discusses the problem in detail in his 2002 best-seller, The Tipping Point.

The Post did not, to my knowledge, carry a still photo of the tragically deranged Biggs, nor did it link to video of him. But if you Google for "Abraham Biggs suicide video," you get more than 54,000 hits. Horrifying.

Some of those are from unedited wildcat websites of the sort that are now ubiquitous and getting more so. Restraint on the part of those new-media actors can only come from internalized moral scruples of decency. Good luck there.

But shouldn't the responsibly edited news outlets such as the cable and broadcast TV networks be expected to hold themselves to a higher standard?

Fox News Channel, for instance, claims some fidelity to traditional values, but when tabloid sensationalism is in the air, they don't seem to resist very well. They didn't on the Biggs story, from what I saw.

What Biggs did is indisputably "news," as are the technology that he used in doing it and the passively curious or in some cases actively macabre reactions of online witnesses. It had to be covered, and analyzed, up to a point.

But news organizations, in helping give the deceased his wish for global fame, have not only coarsened the moral tone of our times. They have also incentivized more such incidents, arguably abetting a number of deaths that need not have occurred.

Our word "obscene" comes from the ancient Greek ethos that recognized certain human emotions or actions as unworthy of portrayal to an audience -- hence confined to occurring off-scene and receiving no more than secondhand description on stage.

This was done in the interest of (1) preserving dignity for all concerned and (2) protecting onlookers from the very real danger of moral contagion. Those obscenity concerns are as valid in modern America as they were in ancient Athens.

Poor Abraham was diagnosed with severe mental illness, but I'll bet what he did was hastened by just such contagion from the culture. Other Abrahams are all around us right now, in Douglas County and everywhere else. You shudder to think what messages they are receiving from the celebrity he's been given. Obscenity rulings from our courts, or enactments from our lawmakers, are too much to hope for in this licentious age. Self-policing by those with the biggest megaphones, perhaps pushed by a revolted and fed-up public, is the best hope I can see.