The great yet ambitious warrior – and twice-knighted thane – Macbeth stops short of murdering Duncan, the Scottish king, while he sleeps in Macbeth's Inverness castle. Macbeth's ambition leads him to ponder the murder because he, Macbeth would be sure to become king with Duncan out of the way. Never mind that the king is a guest in Macbeth's home and deserving all the traditional courtesies and protection of guest-friendship. Although he is presented with the perfect opportunity to murder Duncan and become king, something else that gives Macbeth pause.
The warrior hesitates because he has the foresight to understand that his actions may provide a roadmap to other ambitious men. They, following his example, might target Macbeth as a victim of their own schemes to seize power. In Act I, scene 7 of Shakespeare's Tragedy of Macbeth, the epic hero contemplates: "We still have judgment here, that we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague th’ inventor.” (lines 8-10).
The principle of Macbeth's bloody instructions has sometimes been applied to critical observations of news reports – that by describing in detail how a crime was committed, we are helping to show other desperate people how to commit another horrible crime just like the first.
For example, a well publicized Chicago crime in 1982 led to a whole new class of crimes known as "product tampering." In the 1982 episode, several people died after taking Tylenol tablets that had been laced with cyanide. The criminal in this case had taken bottles of the medication, poisoned the tablets, and returned the bottles to shelves in Chicago area drug stores. In the years that followed, dozens of "copycat" crimes as well as threats of similar crimes have led some to call product tampering a form of "marketplace terrorism."
Other experts with impressive credentials have insisted that news media have to share the blame for "copycat" crimes because media reports are the vehicles that provide "bloody instructions" to others on the fringes of society. These marginalized people may have their imaginations kindled by news reports of shocking crimes; and thus inspired, plot their own courses to imitate the first crime.
In a similar vein, some have suggested that Timothy McVeigh got the inspiration for the method of his 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City from news reports of similar bombing at the World Trade Center by Ramzi Yousef in 1993. In fact, the similarities were so striking, that most of the earliest reports on the Oklahoma City bombing listed Mideast terrorists as prime suspects.
The problem is not new. During the U.S. Civil War, Southern troops often got their best intelligence about Union troop movements from reading the Northern press. These intelligences cost many Union Army lives and inspired Union officers to censor press reports.
What are conscience-driven reporters and editors to do? Some prominent newsrooms have withheld details of a story, or even entire stories for a time, because they have acted on the Awareness that material in a report might lead to copycat crimes.
Others who have studied copycat phenomena like the product tampering episodes of the 1980s and thereafter, have suggested some guidelines for journalists covering such stories.
At a minimum, journalists reporting such stories must weigh the consequences of whatever action they take; they cannot simply go after information and cavalierly report all details simply because they have them.