Name the Shooter or Not?

The debate over whether media 'glorify' mass shooters
The Charlotte Observer

Two weeks ago, after a man shot and killed nine people and then himself at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Charlotte freelance journalist Rhiannon Fionn created a petition on The petition urges the Associated Press to change its stylebook, the standard guide for working journalists everywhere, “to instruct journalists and media organizations to stop publishing names of the perpetrators in mass shootings.”

“Since it seems that the shooters in mass murders at schools, universities, churches, malls and more are looking for fame,” the petition reads, “let's insist the media cut off the fame-fuel by NOT publishing the names of shooters in mass shootings.”

As of this morning, the petition had garnered 82 signatures, nothing that would compel the AP to do much of anything. When I asked Fionn about the effort, she explained that she didn’t expect—or necessarily even want—it to go anywhere. “I realize it's somewhat futile,” she told me. “I was trying to make a point, though I wish I’d named the campaign something like: ‘Dear Media, stop making mass shooters famous.’”

The frustration is understandable given the absence of any other kind of public action in response to repeated gun massacres. Parents, police, even journalists have floated the same idea, especially after Newtown nearly three years ago. John Hanlin, the sheriff of Douglas County in Oregon, made a public show of not naming the Umpqua shooter, Christopher Harper-Mercer. (Although Hanlin has other reasons for directing public outrage toward the media and away from himself.)

Recent research—and common sense—bears out the idea that the oft-discussed “copycat effect” is a factor in many, if not most, mass shootings. Harper-Mercer, pivoting off the shooting of a TV reporter and cameraman near Roanoke, Va., in August, said it himself: “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

Mother Jones magazine has documented 74 gun-related attacks or plots in 30 states that were inspired by the Columbine High School killings in 1999. Alex Mesoudi, a British anthropologist and psychologist, published a paper in 2013 that laid out the clinical argument. “In simply devoting so much time and attention to mass killers, the mass media may be unintentionally conferring prestige and success onto them,” Mesoudi wrote. “For certain individuals, this may trigger a copycat effect and result in another mass shooting. A simple and originally adaptive rule-of-thumb—copy whatever prestigious, successful people are doing—can have tragic consequences in the novel environment of the mass media.”

But not identifying the shooter raises all sorts of practical and ethical issues, too. It would hamstring journalists’ genuine efforts to discover what events in the shooter’s life might have led him (they’re nearly always male) to do the deed. It would conceal basic information from communities where the perpetrators and their victims lived. It would prevent researchers from identifying trends. And, let’s be honest, the identity would soon emerge anyway, via the same social media routes that amplify the act.

So if, heaven forbid, a gunman slaughtered a roomful of people in the Charlotte area, would, say, The Charlotte Observer choose not to identify him? “We haven’t talked about it,” Observer editor Rick Thames told me this week. “I don’t think for us, internally, it would be an issue. It really isn’t going to do a community good to ignore this person or pretend this person doesn’t exist … The public needs to understand these shootings better. This is about all of us trying to figure out how to prevent these shootings.”

But the two extremes—avoiding any mention of the perpetrator’s name or turning him into, in effect, a twisted outlaw hero—needn’t be the only options. Proportion is the key here. After the Virginia shooting in August, the New York Daily News caught a wave of well-deserved criticism for this front page, which the paper’s editors argued “convey[ed] the true scale of what happened in Roanoke … at a time when it is so easy for the public to become inured to such senseless violence.”

You could argue just as easily that the public has become inured to such acts of violence precisely because those images occupy front pages, websites, and newscasts whenever a mass shooting happens. The images of the Virginia shooting offered no real information. There was no question about what had happened. Running the photos—screencaps, after all, from the shooter’s own video camera—reduced the murder of two people to a sick cartoon, the climax of a snuff film.

After the Oregon shooting, Mother Jones published a list of guidelines for news organizations that stop short of “don’t name the shooter” but urge the kind of restraint they practice inconsistently: report on the perpetrator forensically and dispassionately; minimize the use of his name and image; keep the name out of headlines; don’t run photos of him in a self-conscious “commando pose”; and avoid publishing shooters’ videos or “manifestos” unless they contain valuable information.

“In a moment like that,” Thames said, “I’d hope the Observer could present information in a way in which people would understand why it’s relevant.” Most of us hope for the same thing, in moments of tragedy and generally—that news organizations exercise sound judgment about the information they publish and how they publish it. The trouble with adopting new professional standards these days in journalism is that it presumes everyone will follow them; of course, not everyone will, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

In that respect, it resembles the larger argument about the availability of guns in America and the frequency of mass shootings. No law would ever be able to keep all guns out of the hands of psychopaths; no newspaper’s decision not to publish a name would keep the name from becoming public; no new journalism standard would eliminate the copycat effect. The call for self-censorship might not be a practical attempt to cut off the “fame-fuel” as much as a heart’s cry we’ve all grown too familiar with in recent years: for someone, somewhere, to do something.

Categories: The Buzz