The mass killings in California last week underscore a point I made in 2012: News media should reconsider giving mass murderers the attention they clearly crave.
I didn’t blog about this immediately after the May 23 killings because I was focused on other matters and I haven’t repeated this point every time a murderer goes on a rampage. But I was immediately struck with how clearly this case was a successful attempt by the killer to go out in a blaze of infamy. His hateful videos and his 141-page diatribe (I think calling it a “manifesto” perhaps overdignifies it) make it clear that attention was as much a motive of this hate crime as was misogyny.
I’m discussing this case a week late because Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times, addressed the issue of whether the Times should have published the diatribe and video.
Sullivan’s a friend and the best public editor the Times has had. I’m glad she raised the issue of whether the Times should have published these items and the name of the killer. But I disagree with her conclusion that the Times’ decisions were the right ones.
“In general, I don’t believe in holding back germane information from the public,” she wrote.
As I noted in my 2012 post, the Times did exactly that in 2009, not only withholding a name but not even reporting that Times reporter David Rohde had been kidnapped by the Taliban. I think the Times was right to do that. We don’t know whether the conspiracy of silence by U.S. media played a factor in the Taliban’s decision not to kill Rohde, who escaped after seven months in captivity. And we can’t know whether withholding names and photographs of mass killers from coverage of their crimes would play a factor in the future decisions of others evil enough and/or mentally ill enough to contemplate mass murder.
But I’m fed up with giving killers the attention they crave. If I ever lead a news organization again, my approach will be:
- We won’t name mass killers or suspects in mass killings.
- We won’t publish photographs of mass killers or suspects in mass killings.
- We won’t publish speculation about the mental state of mass killers or suspects in mass killings, unless we are quoting mental health professionals who actually examined or treated the killer or suspect.
- Otherwise, we will report fully about the actions of mass killers and suspects.
So here’s how my organization would have reported on last week’s carnage in California: We would report every fact we could verify about the crime and the killer, except his name and photograph. Our coverage would focus more on victims than the killer, but we would not shrink from telling the story of the hate that drove him or of his troubled life before the murders. We would have published his diatribe. I think the public needs to know how misogyny can fuel violence.
As Sullivan noted, Poynter’s Kelly McBride advocated providing context with annotation by psychologists and psychiatrists. McBride’s also a friend, but I’m not sure I’d follow her advice fully on this. I would not publish annotation that speculated on the mental state of a person the shrinks had not examined or treated, but I can see some annotation being helpful here in providing context: information about the killer’s actions before or after the crimes that would be relevant to parts of the diatribe, information on misogynist organizations or publications the diatribe might echo, etc.
The video would present a more challenging decision. It also shows the hatred that drove the killer and I think that hatred is newsworthy and needs to be examined and heard after such a crime. I’d discuss this with my staff (and perhaps with others whose opinions I value) and be open to other approaches, but here’s what I would suggest: We would pixelate the killer’s face in the video (and disclose that we had done so). I would also discuss the possibility of using the killer’s voice only briefly (to show authenticity), then either distorting it, having someone else read a transcript in a voiceover or stopping the audio after a sentence or two and running his words in text (again, disclosing what we have done).
I don’t like the suggestion of pixelation, but I assure you that if the killer had been naked on the video, or masturbating at the thought of killing women, media organizations would have pixelated his genitals. Pixelation is an acceptable alternative to showing obscene content. I think showing the face of an attention-seeking mass murderer is every bit as obscene.
I am not comfortable with any of the measures I am proposing. But this is not about comfort, it’s about principle. I am under no illusion that minimizing attention to the individuals responsible will deter any or all future murderers. But I am fed up with rewarding killers who want attention. I’ll deny them their attention because it’s right, not because I think media have the power to solve this problem. If in some small way this approach gives less incentive to the evil or mentally ill who are contemplating mayhem, that would be wonderful.
Mass murder is a plague in our society, involving a wide range of issues. If journalists are going to address all the issues we can’t control — gun regulations, mental health, school security, violent entertainment — we should at least try to address the one issue we do control.
In Sullivan’s piece, she wrote:
When I started writing this column, I had the notion of leaving out Mr. (Killer)’s name. But it proved impossible, just as, however appealing it might be, it would be impossible for news organizations to leave out the names of other mass killers.
Of course, Sullivan used the killer’s last name where I inserted (Killer) in parentheses. And it’s not impossible for news organizations to leave killers’ names out of stories, any more than it was impossible for the Times not to report on the very newsworthy abduction of an American journalist by the Taliban. Uncomfortable, yes, but not impossible.
News organizations have long traditions of withholding relevant, newsworthy names from stories. As I discussed at more length in the 2012 post, we withhold names of confidential sources upon whom the credibility of our stories rest. We withhold names of survivors of sexual assaults from stories about the crimes against them.
It’s not only possible to publish stories without using key names, we’re very good at it. So here’s Sullivan’s Saturday post (it will be her Sunday column in the print edition of the Times), with the passages in bold being places where she used the killer’s name, edited by me to leave it out. The underlined passages are quotes that used the name. I have shortened the quoted passage to exclude the name:
THE stone-faced young man stood on the sidewalk last week near Union Square holding a large, hand-lettered sign on a hot-pink piece of poster board. It read: “I deserve hot blonde women.” I wondered if this could be an ironic piece of feminist political commentary or if it was intended to seem hostile.
In any case, it was clearly inspired by the shooting near the University of California at Santa Barbara about a week before. The killer set out to target beautiful young women, he said, because they had rejected him sexually.
But it’s a far more extreme kind of “inspiration” that worries Ari Schulman, who thinks and writes about the effect of media coverage of mass shootings. After The Times posted both the 141-page written manifesto and a video statement issued by the California gunman last week, Mr. Schulman wrote to me. He made the case that publishing those statements — which he sees as a form of propaganda — perpetuates a culture in which violence is rewarded with notoriety.
“There’s an unspoken agreement that if you are frustrated and angry, that all you have to do to get your feelings broadcast is to kill a lot of people,” Mr. Schulman, the executive editor of The New Atlantis, a quarterly journal devoted to technology and society, told me in a later interview. He spoke of a “conscious copycat effect” that can be seen in the string of mass killings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown, Conn.
The media, he says, “have been nearly perfect participants” in the “ritualistic response” that incentivizes these horrific episodes. It’s past time, he believes, to rethink that and to change it.
He was not alone, among Times readers, in considering this question. I heard from a Hunter College professor, Steven M. Gorelick, who wrote that he wondered “what might have gone into the decision by The Times to post the chilling video” made by the killer before he went on his rampage. He wondered whether this was “a simple case of the public’s right to know, or whether there was any substantive discussion about any kind of possible negative impact that posting the video might have had.”
For most journalists, the instinct to publish what they know — rather than to hold back — is a strong one. Yet nearly every article reflects judgments and decisions about what to use and what not to use.
Unlike many news outlets, The Times did not cast the video and written statements in a sensational light — but it did publish them.
Kelly McBride, who writes about journalism ethics, believes there’s a “democratic value” to publishing and referencing the killer’s manifesto. “The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.” But, she recommended in a piece for Poynter.org, “don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document.”
Mr. Schulman sees a different middle ground, he says. The barrier to publication of these documents and videos should be higher, and the media attention paid to them far less — “maybe no more than a passing mention that it exists.”
The question of unintentionally glorifying a killer is not new. When Rolling Stone magazine put a photo of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects on its cover, many protested that it made him look glamorous. (The Times had run the same photo, earlier.) When The Times published a front-page photograph of the Newtown gunman, who killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, some readers objected for the same reason.
I do find it interesting and appropriate that Sullivan did not name the bombing suspect or the Newtown gunman here. She almost makes my case that you don’t need the names.
And The Times wrote a story last December about people in Colorado who, based on similar thinking, want the media to stop publishing even the names of mass killers. Their idea — more extreme than Mr. Schulman’s proposal — has gained some traction.
I talked to The Times’s national editor, Alison Mitchell, about the issue. She told me that decisions about whether to use this kind of material are not made lightly.
“In every one of these cases, we think about it. It comes under a lot of discussion, and is not done reflexively,” she said. In this case, the video and manifesto were so integral to understanding the motivation for the crimes, she said, “we would have very consciously not have been telling a big part of the story.”
Times readers “want to see and judge for themselves,” Ms. Mitchell said. “It’s a disservice to try to shield them.”
As a lifelong journalist, my instincts, predictably enough, line up with Ms. Mitchell’s. In general, I don’t believe in holding back germane information from the public.
When I started writing this column, I had the notion of leaving out the killer’s name. But it proved impossible, just as, however appealing it might be, it would be impossible for news organizations to leave out the names of other mass killers.
OK, I didn’t edit that paragraph to say that it was possible, but you can see that it is.
I find Mr. Schulman’s reasoning thought provoking, though. Many factors enter into these outbursts of violence: gun availability, mental illness, sometimes misogyny, and more. Media attention is undeniably one of them. And the idea of playing down a killer’s “manifesto” is, at the very least, worth consideration, on a case-by-case basis. We may have no choice but to name the killers, but we are not obligated to provide a platform for every one of their twisted views.
A final point: I usually link to related news stories in a blog post such as this. I omitted links to stories about the California killings deliberately, except for the Sullivan post, because I chose not to link to stories naming this killer.
Update: Thanks to Patrick LaForge of the Times for a Twitter direct message noting that I had misspelled pixelated (I’ve since fixed it). Patrick’s message said: “pixelated: ‘blurred or blocky … digital images’ pixilated: ‘enchantment by fairies.’ (We get this wrong so often we had to do a style entry.)” Dictionary.com defines pixilated or pixillated (the spelling I used) as “eccentric or whimsical” or “drunk,” not the same definition Patrick gave, but also not what I meant, so I corrected the spelling.