What if we denied mass killers the attention they crave?
I’ve covered too many mass murders in my career, and I wasn’t even involved in yesterday’s coverage. I want it to stop. Like lots of people, I felt helpless and frustrated at our inability as a nation to prevent this mass-killing madness that strikes more often in this nation than anywhere and that this year has struck again and again.
I don’t feel that I have any great insight on the gun-control debate that inevitably swirls around these incidents. But I always agonize about journalism’s role in these stories. Clearly this is attention-seeking behavior, and we give these killers what they want.
I should clarify: I don’t think the psychology of mass murder is simple enough to attribute to any single factor such as longing for attention. (And one of the things that most annoys me about coverage is when we interview psychologists who speculate about the mental state of someone they have never examined.)
But it’s clear to me that attention is part of the motivation of killers. Even those who kill themselves or keep killing until an officer kills them clearly have decided they want to go out in a blaze of infamy.
As I have written multiple times about confidential sources, who is the first of the 5 W’s, an essential question that we should answer in news stories. I think journalists should strive to learn and tell the who in nearly every story we report. But, just as occasional extraordinary stories justify confidentiality, I think the scourge of mass murder is such a pressing issue for our society that it will demand some solutions outside our comfort zones.
Most news organizations also decide not to publish names of rape survivors, unless they want to be identified, and in some cases decide not to identify juveniles in the news. In a recent blog post, I decided not to name an attention-seeking cult that threatened to cause disruption outside my nephew’s funeral. Sometimes we decide that circumstances justify withholding a name.
I’d like to see news organizations cover these stories without any mention of the names of the accused killers. Media organizations had the wrong name initially yesterday anyway. What did that serve, other than causing agony for an innocent man?
What if we just covered the horror and the victims and the public-safety issue and the public-policy issue? No name of the killer, no bogus psychoanalysis. If a case presented some mental-illness issues that need examination, we could examine those issues without signaling to others who are ill that an assault rifle would make the world notice them.
Perhaps this is a foolish suggestion. Even if all the professional media could act in unison, the name (even if it wasn’t the right name) would fly around on social media. I’m not suggesting that we not report that one of the murder victims in this case was his mother, which would certainly identify him to people in town. But they would already know by word of mouth and social media anyway.
This would require compromising a central principle of journalism. But maybe some flexibility on principles would set a good example for the politicians who have refused for years to address this failing of our society.
It’s not enough, and it doesn’t feel right. But damn, this feels too wrong to not do what we can.
Update: The family of Alex Teves, an Aurora massacre victim, has issued a similar challenge to the media.
Update: Guy Lucas has written a thoughtful blog post that differs with this. In a comment on his post, I made some points I decided were worth repeating here (edited slightly):
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we silence the media. I am suggesting that the media voluntarily stop giving mass killers the attention that I believe they clearly are seeking. I don’t suggest that we shouldn’t cover these mass murders, just that we don’t name the killers, don’t publish their photos and don’t engage in bogus, speculative psychological profiles.
The phenomenon of suicide clusters is well documented in medical and psychological literature, and I think it’s a stretch to think that one killer is oblivious to the attention lavished on previous killers. I acknowledged that the motives of these killers were not simple, but it’s ludicrous to think that they aren’t at least in part seeking a twisted version of glory.
You certainly are right that getting the media to agree on such a move is unlikely, which I also acknowledged. However, most media organizations do agree (or, more likely, decide independently) that they will not identify rape victims who want to remain private. And, perhaps more relevant, many media organizations follow the guidelines of suicide prevention organizations, which call for more responsible coverage of suicide.
I don’t think for a moment that this madness would stop if we ever followed my advice. But if one potential crazed killer decided to seek attention in a less violent way or did not commit his violence on such a grandiose scale, I’d take that.
One more update: I don’t mean any of this as a criticism of news organizations and journalists who have identified the Newtown killer. A decision like this should be carried out by multiple organizations (I don’t ever expect unanimity) after a discussion outside the framework of an immediate story. Most of the coverage I have seen of this tragedy, including by my Connecticut Digital First colleagues, has been excellent.
And another update: Mitch Pugh called my attention on Twitter to Greg Mitchell’s 2009 piece about why at least 40 news outlets joined a conspiracy of silence for months about the Taliban’s abduction of New York Times reporter David Rohde. I think that was the right thing to do, but it was clearly a more severe departure from standard journalism practice than I am proposing. If you supported the silence about an abducted reporter (with the intention, but no guarantee, that it would prevent his death), why would you not support withholding publication of the name and photo of mass killers (with the intention, but no guarantee, that it would prevent future mass murders)?