Naming Names

“I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act,” said Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin in his initial press conference after the mass killing in Oregon last week.

“You will never hear me mention his name. We would encourage media to avoid using it, to not repeat it. We encourage you not to glorify and create sensationalism for him. He in no way deserves this. Focus your attention on the victims, on the families, helping them get through this difficult time.”

Hanlin’s sentiment is one newsrooms wrestle with as they balance the public’s right to know, sensitivity to victims and their loved ones, and increased research that’s trying to determine if there’s a “contagion effect” where the notoriety of one shooter encourages future shooters.

Here’s what some are saying after the Oregon shooting.

Print Versus Broadcast

Platforms matter. Cable networks and their 24-7 repetition of the sites and sounds of the day’s news are different than their printed word counterparts.

“My friend @donlemon says ‘we (TV news) must identify him b/c that is our job,'” wrote Fox’s Megyn Kelly on Twitter. “No. Print media can. TV gives infamy he prob desired. Don’t!”

“My heart agrees with you,” CNN’s Lemon replied, “but I believe we (journalists) must name shooters. Sparingly though.”

Over at the Washington Post, Eric Wemple noted in the shooting’s immediate aftermath that “a morning’s worth of television-watching suggests that the networks are indeed treading lightly” in regards to showing the shooter or mentioning his name.

But, he adds, the Post will handle things differently with this statement from Cameron Barr, the paper’s national editor:

Chris Harper Mercer is an accused mass murderer and we intend to report on his motivations and background as accurately and fully as we can. We believe that comprehensive information about those responsible for mass shootings and other horrendous events informs the public debate. While I can appreciate the revulsion that people feel in the wake of such an incident, we see no benefit in withholding information from readers.

Barr’s statement is both interesting and appropriate. Yes, revulsion is a proper and expected response. But revulsion isn’t a justification or motivation for not reporting something, or not naming something. As Mary Elizabeth Williams writes at Salon:

Shoddy, lazy, exploitive reporting happens and it happens a lot. But it still doesn’t put the onus of preventing any future mass murders on the shoulders of people giving you the news or discussing the social and political implications of current events.

First, Do No Harm

There are plenty of situations where newsrooms withhold information, national security and public safety being primary examples. And there is an argument being made that naming mass shooters is a public safety issue. Here’s Corinne Purtill, writing in Quartz:

A study this summer from Arizona State University found “significant evidence” that school shootings and other mass shootings were far more likely if there had been reports of a similar shooting in the previous two weeks.

And last year, after analyzing 160 mass shootings in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013, Andre Simons of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit concluded, “The copycat phenomenon is real.”

“As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks,” Simons said at the time.

Over at Vocativ, James King explains how recent murderers name-checked other killers.

Oregon shooter Chris Harper Mercer called out Vester Flanagan, the former TV reporter who gunned down two ex-colleagues during a live broadcast in August and posted videos of the shooting on Twitter…

…Flanagan himself referenced four alleged mass murderers in a manifesto he sent to ABC News the morning of the shooting. One of them was Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old accused of killing nine people in a historically black church in Charleston in June. Flanagan also cited Seung-Hui Cho, the South Korean national who gunned down 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007.

But there’s a difference though between giving the public the facts about the perpetrator and sensationalizing the criminal. It can be done responsibly. Here’s former MSNBC host Toure, suggesting that after 24 hours there’s no need to mention the killer’s name again:

There is a tricky set of issues for journalists here — news cannot function if fully draped in advocacy or activism, and there is a basic human need for information that we must fulfill. It is necessary to report the name of the killer within 24 hours of the incident—that’s part of news media’s basic contract with the public. But, for me, after that initial period, repeatedly naming the killer and showing his picture and diving into his background means providing a sort of celebrity for America’s worst sort of losers—a perverse sort of fame that they covet. It means participating in a kind of killer porn that draws viewers in but does not truly inform them.

“Journalists are not supposed to elide relevant facts when reporting a news story just because reporting those facts might strike some people as offensive or wrong,” argues Justin Peters in Slate. “[I]t is essential for journalists to report causation when causation is knowable. The Umpqua Community College massacre didn’t just happen. A ghost didn’t kill all those people.”

Chris Harper Mercer probably did want to be on the news, and, sure, by putting him on the news, journalists are giving him “what he wanted.” But it seems clear to me that what Chris Harper Mercer mostly wanted was guns he could use to execute lots of people. He got them. We already gave him what he wanted. Mass shootings in America will never slow or cease until journalists recognize and report on their cause. Because causation is knowable here. And it has nothing to do with a shooter’s vague desire to be on CNN.

Covering tragedy is a balancing act requiring strong empathy and ethics. It’s fortunate that newsrooms are grappling with these issues, and — generally speaking — reporting on events such as Oregon has gotten better over the years.

Or, as Kelly McBride, vice president at The Poynter Institute, puts it, “Responsible reporting is the antidote.”

Michael Cervieri

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)