Aug. 25, 2016
Media coverage of mass shootings and terrorist attacks (in the West) tends to follow the same grim pattern—reporters rush to the scene, interview witnesses, first responders, and family members, comb social media for new information, and, ultimately, turn their attention to the perpetrator’s identity and motive. And after each tragedy, a familiar criticism surfaces: Is the media glorifying the attacker and consequently inspiring more violence?
Over the last several years, there have been a number of public calls for the media to abstain from reporting on the identities and lives of shooters and terrorists. Most recently, two French newspapers, Le Monde and La Croix, adopted a policy of not publishing the photos of terrorists to “avoid bestowing ‘posthumous glorification’”after the July attacks in Nice and Normandy.
After a shooting at a community college in Oregon last year that killed an assistant professor and eight students, the local sheriff said at a press conference, “I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.” He urged the media to do the same.
The parents of a victim of the Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting in 2012 started a campaign called “No Notoriety,” which advocates for limiting the media attention on the perpetrators of mass shootings.
Many of those who call for decreased media attention on shooters and terrorists cite both research and anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Researchers at Arizona State University released a study last year that found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.” In the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell told the story of a young Minnesota man named John LaDue who plotted to murder his family and detonate bombs in his school. In his testimony to the police and in court, he admitted the Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold inspired him, saying “My number one idol is Eric Harris. ... I think I just see myself in him.” During the investigation of Adam Lanza after the Sandy Hook school shooting, he was found to have collected information about other mass shootings.
But the reality remains that there is no sufficient evidence to say for certain that to keep the identity of a mass shooter or terrorist out of the media is to prevent other similar attacks. There are simply too many confounding variables to say with certainty that media coverage directly causes copycat attacks.
And so, the media faces an ethical dilemma. The most basic responsibility of journalism requires reporting the truth as completely as possible. Can a news outlet justify breaking this principle tenet of journalism to avoid an unguaranteed outcome?
The Oregon community college shooting presents a case study in news outlets’ response to this dilemma. In the days following the shooting and the sheriff’s call for the media not to report on the shooter, articles explaining reporting decisions show that many news organizations did indeed grapple with this question. From those discussions, three main lessons for the media emerged:
Naming the shooter has journalistic value and withholding information contradicts journalistic norms
Investigating a shooter’s life and motivations can help identify patterns of behavior, including potential warning signs
Fairly balanced attention between the shooter and the victims leads to the most responsibly reported version of a story
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple urged news organizations to ignore requests to not print or broadcast the shooter’s name, quoting the Post’s then-national editor Cameron Barr who said the newspaper “intend[ed] to report on [Mercer’s] motivations and background as accurately and fully as [it] can,” because they “believe that comprehensive information about those responsible for mass shootings and other horrendous events informs the public debate.”
Kelly McBride of Poynter argued that “knowing who was behind the gun allows us to identify trends” in the violence. She used the example of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho whose identity was reported, and whose teachers then “[came] forward to report they had voiced concerns about his mental health in the past.”
NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen reviewed the NPR stories produced in the wake of the shooting to assess the balance of the coverage between the victims and the perpetrator. She wrote that she felt NPR had not overused the shooter’s name, citing several stories about the victims that did not name Mercer at all.
To be sure, this isn't a simple binary and when some cable outlets or internet blogs drift into near-celebrity level coverage of a criminal that might have contagious effects.But, while there may be a way to break the grim pattern we endure in the wake of mass shootings, it does not involve withholding information about the shooter from the public. That doesn’t break the cycle of violence; that breaks the promise journalists make to their readers.