I admire both men greatly and have featured Roy’s writing insights in this blog. But neither of them is at all convincing here.
Most journalists and news organizations have not embraced my call to stop giving attention to attention-seeking mass killers. However the Sun News Network has decided not to publish the name of the suspect in the recent New Brunswick slayings of three police officers.
The Sun News decision prompted Al to address the issue and Roy was agreeing with Al’s post. Please read Al’s and Roy’s responses to this post, at the end of my original post.
Roy is one of my favorite writers in the business, but this piece was not as strong as he usually writes. The headline tells you what the piece is about: “What Harry Potter teaches about naming killers.” And here’s what Harry Potter teaches about naming killers: Nothing. Harry Potter is fiction. He teaches us nothing more about naming killers than Murphy Brown taught us about American families or morals back when Dan Quayle found her “lifestyle choice” disturbing.
I use cultural references here occasionally, and I usually enjoy Roy’s cultural references (even though I never read the Harry Potter books). But mass killings are real and we need to discuss the real issues surrounding them. Roy didn’t do that. He discussed names in literature: the Bible and Rumpelstiltskin in addition to Harry Potter. I think journalism judgments should be based on weighing conflicting values, not by looking for lessons in fairy tales.
Roy contends that naming killers has power because the fictional characters in the book were too timid to use the name of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. He was “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Roy writes:
The moment that Harry calls him “Tom” is the moment we know that the evil wizard is doomed.
Well, in real life, news organizations have named the killers in a seemingly endless string of mass murders, and no magic has happened yet to stem the violence. In real life, many mass killers clearly are seeking attention. Beyond the public nature of their crimes — and, in many cases, no attempt to hide their guilt — some of the killers leave written or video pleas for infamy.
I don’t expect any magic because this isn’t fiction. But if attention-seeking mass killers started becoming He Who Is Not Worthy of Being Named, maybe some dangerous people with mental illnesses would choose less deadly ways of seeking attention.
Al took a more meaningful approach than Roy, addressing some actual journalism issues. He said that the Sun News position “ignores the possibility that full, thoughtful reporting might lead to understanding and even prevention.”
I don’t know what Sun News is planning, but thoughtful reporting can be done without use of the killer or suspect’s name and photo. News media provide thoughtful reporting of rape without reporting the names of most victims. The victim is a critical person in a story about rape and should be identified by normal journalistic values, but we make an exception because we think that respecting the privacy of rape victims will somehow help more victims to come forward and report rape. We don’t know if or how that helps more women report rape, but we withhold the names because it feels right and we want to do what little we can.
As for Al’s notion that our reporting might lead to prevention? We’ve been naming attention-seeking mass killers for decades now. How’s that prevention working?
Al provided examples of reporting he thought aided our understanding:
For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch produced a spectacular investigationinto how James Holmes, the man accused in the Aurora theater shooting got the ammo he used. The Post-Dispatch shows how Holmes purchased thousands of rounds of ammo and tear gas canisters online, legally.
PBS Frontline and The Hartford Courant deeply and responsibly reported on who Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza was, how he grew up and what we could learn about him that could help us understand what lead up to the Sandy Hook shooting.
I agree that both stories were excellent works of journalism. The Post-Dispatch story easily could have been told without using the defendant’s name or photograph. It provided some understanding about how the gunman got his ammunition and how authorities tracked it, but it didn’t help understand why the crime happened.
The PBS Frontline/Hartford Courant project included a story about the troubled young man who killed so many children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It’s an excellent work of journalism and it also could have been published without using the killer’s name or photo.
I wrote a story once about a victim of domestic violence who had moved to another state and gotten a new Social Security number to live under a new name (facts I was able to verify). It was a real stretch in terms of normal journalism standards to write that story without naming the woman, but it would have been absolutely wrong to name her (her dangerous ex-husband was still alive). And she wouldn’t have done the interview if I hadn’t agreed to protect her name. So my editors and I decided we had a compelling reason to tell the story without her name.
The Frontline/Courant story certainly made the point that the young man had a long history of mental issues. But it didn’t help me understand the crime. I’ve written and edited more stories about more murders than I can count. But I usually didn’t flatter myself to claim or even think that I understood or helped people understand the crimes. Some crimes defy understanding.
Al also brought in two examples of a different kind of mass killing:
The wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing has not lead to copycat bombings; the coverage of the horrific Oklahoma City federal courthouse bombing didn’t lead to similar terrorism.
Those two crimes differ from the mass killings by attention-seeking loners, which very clearly have a strong copycat pattern. Both of those were terrorist bombings and nowhere near as isolated as Al suggests. But in both cases, the bombers were not seeking personal attention. They fled the scene and tried to avoid detection and capture. I would name defendants in such cases (though I would respect the views of journalists who think we should not identify them either). For me, the deciding factor in not naming mass killers would be the attention-seeking behavior.
The Frontline/Courant story includes this telling passage: “Some who were interviewed agreed to be named while others shared information and recollections on the condition that they not be named.”
OK, the guy who killed all of those people was dead, so the unnamed sources in the story were in no danger for talking to the reporters. The story never says why people wouldn’t talk for the record, so we’re left to speculate about the reasons. Maybe they didn’t want neighbors who were fed up with media coverage to know that they cooperated with the reporters. Maybe they were releasing information that should be confidential. Some may be liars. Some may be cowards seeking to avoid accountability for what they say. Maybe they just didn’t want the attention.
I’m going to speculate that Frontline and the Courant’s reasons for withholding those names aren’t as compelling as wanting to avoid telling dangerous people that they can finally get the world’s attention if they kill a lot of people.
Gun-rights advocates appear absurd in their refusal to even consider that lax gun laws play any role in mass killings or that any sort of gun regulations should play a role in preventing future carnage. Journalists risk appearing similarly entrenched in denial if we pretend that the attention we lavish on mass killers has no effect and that we shouldn’t consider trying to play a role in preventing future carnage.
Mass killings won’t stop simply because of tighter gun laws or news coverage that doesn’t name killers. But some disturbed people might get help if they can’t get guns easily or might kill fewer people if they can’t get guns and ammunition made for high-volume killing. So I’d love to try some reasonable gun regulation. And maybe some disturbed people won’t see violence as the way to get the world to notice them if we didn’t publish the names and photos of every mass killer. So I’m willing to give mass killers the same consideration we give cowards who don’t want to be accountable for their words.
Update: Thanks to Al Tompkins for this thoughtful response (which is better than his original Poynter post). I have edited it just to turn links he included into hyperlinks in the text and add a couple of other links:
How many times in my life have I witnessed this cycle — the issue is too complex, we can’t solve it with simple inexpensive solutions — so blame the media for talking about it.
In the most basic journalism classes, students learn to report the “who, what. when, where, why and how” of the story.
To ignore the “who” not only makes the reporting less complete, it also can lead to misunderstanding and assumptions.
One writer for The Atlantic has suggested journalists should withhold the names of shooters for weeks after a shooting. Imagine you are a victim’s family and you would not know for weeks who did this awful thing? Imagine the rumors and even mob violence that could follow by false assumptions.
As journalists, we generally should default to “the more you know, the more we can tell you, the better your decision-making can be.”
In the past, lawmakers have passed legislation without knowing enough about the problems of gun violence.
So we passed assault weapon bans. The problem, assault weapons are used in a small percentage of gun crimes. Lift the ban and what happened–gun crimes went down. Probably not because there was or wasn’t a ban, gun crimes were declining anyway. Some experts say it is because fewer young people grow up in gun households now. There are more weapons, but fewer people own them.
Media often withhold details of suicides. How is that working? Suicides now rank as the 10th leading cause of death in America (far above homicide) and the gun-related homicide rate is falling and has been for some time.
That is not to say we should report every detail of every suicide. There is some evidence that there may be a copy-cat effect when suicide and homicide is glorified. But is it journalism that is glorifying gun violence or is it deeper and more cultural than that?
In my book, Aim for the Heart, I tell the story of a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee at John Trotwood Moore Middle School in April 1994. I was a news director in Nashville then and a photographer from my staff captured a fairly graphic image of the injured child being rushed from the school to a waiting ambulance. The EMTs were pumping the boy’s chest. You saw no blood or face, but it was clearly an urgent and dire scene. My instinct was to NOT show the video. I asked a school psychologist what he thought and he said that we SHOULD show the video. I was shocked. “why,” I asked.
He said that viewers, especially young viewers, need to see that shootings kill people. The kids I work with daily see “happy violence” in movies and video games. His advice was for us to show the video explain why we were showing it, not use the video in headlines, not use it repeatedly, not describe it with breathless adjectives, but show the tragedy that comes with violent behavior. He even appeared on the air with us that night to explain to viewers why he gave us that advice and how they should talk to their kids about the news. We did all of that, we also did a special that night on what parents could say to kids about going to school the next day.
Steve, I suspect many people share your frustration with the level of violence in America. Simple solutions won’t work.
Report more, as Chicago Public Radio did in it’s widely honored Harper High project.
What is America willing to do about drug and gang violence since both are so deeply connected to gun crime?
What is the connection between violent behavior and school dropouts?
The key to understanding any problem is to put a face on it, understand and embrace the complexity that keeps the problem going, reject cliches and assumptions and report deeply. If I did not believe that I would have to leave journalism. I know of no problem that gets less so by withholding essential information. That’s why I teach journalists to report, because truth leads to understanding and understanding leads to effective solutions.
A few responses: I should clarify that I don’t “blame the media for talking about it.”
The blame for mass killings belongs on the killers, not the gun laws or the gun dealers or the producers of violent entertainment or the mental health system or the media who cover mass killings. But mass killers will not solve this problem. The solution needs to come from somewhere else, unless we think continued mass killings are OK and unstoppable. So all of those other parties, including the media, should examine our consciences and our practices and consider whether we can do something to change the environment in which this violence occurs.
The standard media approach to covering crime, which Al has explained well, showers attention on mass killers. Since some of them clearly are seeking attention, I say we should deny that to them. But I don’t and haven’t blamed the media for what happens.
I acknowledged the importance of who in journalism in both of the previous posts where I have advocated withholding mass killers’ names. This isn’t an easy call for me, for all the reasons Al mentioned.
I also should state that I agree with the decision to run the graphic video in the Nashville story (based on Al’s description; I haven’t seen the video). And I don’t at all think that we should withhold the names of suspects in gang violence. I’m talking about public mass shootings where the killers appear to be seeking attention.
Al makes excellent arguments here. I’m conflicted about this myself, as I’ve noted in earlier posts. But what Al didn’t address is the point I made withholding names of rape victims or sources who demand confidentiality. We’ve already decided that some reasons are important enough to not answer the who. I’m just saying that deciding not to feed mass killers’ thirst for attention is a better reason than 90 percent of the reasons we accept for using unamed sources.
Update: Thanks to Roy Peter Clark for this response, to which I have added some links:
Thanks for reaching out to me and my colleague Al Tompkins with your critique of our stories. I will let Al speak for himself.
Let me begin my response with a controversial concept in social science research known as the Werther Effect. This effect gets its name from a fictional character (I hope that won’t lead you to dismiss it). In 1774 the German author Goethe wrote a sensational novel called “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” As I understand it, Werther was a rebellious young man who dressed in a peculiar way (he wore yellow pants and blue jackets). In his grief over an unrequited love, he shoots and kills himself. The story was so influential, that young German men began dressing in yellow and blue. Sadly, some of them killed themselves in imitation of their hero.
Interestingly, this led to the book being banned in some regions.
So should novelists not write about people who commit suicide because some susceptible readers may be inclined to imitate that action?
That question became more real in the 20th century, when social scientists began to theorize and measure that highly publicized suicides – especially of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe — led to a measurable increase in the suicide rates in big cities. That led to a lot of good work between media organizations and mental health experts about the coverage of suicide. Some societies feel that news organizations should NEVER cover suicide, because a susceptible person might be moved to imitate that action. I have never met a journalist discussing the topic at Poynter who thinks that’s a good idea. It’s not WHETHER we cover suicide, but HOW we cover it that makes a difference in the public interest. Certainly we can write about suicide without romanticizing it.
And we can write about murderers without romanticizing them.
You are, without evidence, positing a Werther Effect for mass shootings. You are saying that the naming of the killers bears a direct influence on future crimes. Let me invoke Harry Potter once again: Your argument feels like magical thinking to me, that the eradication of names will somehow lead to less violence. Part of your bad mojo, in spite of its good intent, is to place that person into a magical category – those who have such potential evil influence upon us that they cannot be named.
When we learn the names of the killers – a first step to knowing their stories – we as a society can begin to piece together the mystery of their warped characters and personalities. Rather than place their names and images in an Orwellian memory hole, we need to find out the multiple causes of their social pathologies: mental illness, family deterioration, abuse, brain damage, pornography, violent video games, popular culture, and, yes, even literature. I trust our best journalists to pursue these, and I hope they can do it without handcuffs.
Roy and I agree on these points:
- It’s not whether we write about mass murders, but how we write (and broadcast, etc.) about them.
- We can write about murderers without romanticizing them.
All those things that Roy says in the last paragraph can be done without naming the killer. But we’ll still be left wondering why these people did what they did. The next profile of a mass killer that helps me understand will be the first.
Roy exaggerates in saying that I suggested anything magical. I said that people who engage in public mass murders are seeking attention. As if that weren’t clear from their actions, some of them write long diatribes or take photos or videos crying for attention after they know they will be dead. Here’s what I said (italics added): “And maybe some disturbed people won’t see violence as the way to get the world to notice them if we didn’t publish the names and photos of every mass killer.”
I am pleased that both Al and Roy responded to this post, each with a more thoughtful explanation of their positions than in their original posts. This is an important discussion and I hope it continues.
Neither Al nor Roy addressed one of my key points here. Maybe someone else will. Or maybe this is the unassailable part of my argument: How is denying twisted glory to mass killers a less valid reason for not publishing names and photos than protecting the privacy of rape survivors or shielding sources from accountability?
News media have published profiles like Al and Roy described about an endless string of mass killers that has lasted my entire career and longer. I’d keep writing the profiles, without using names. But I don’t think the meager understanding those profiles bring is worth defending. I’m ready to try something different.
Update: Since both Roy and Al mentioned suicide, I’m adding a link to a Dart Center post on recommendations for reporting on suicide. The documented instances of copycat suicide clusters and the fact that many mass killers commit suicide indicate it isn’t magic to suggest that media coverage influences future behavior.