Initially, I was inclined not to renew my call here for the media not to give mass killers the attention they crave. I don’t feel a need to repeat it every time a hateful person seeks attention with a gun.
But Dan Kennedy and Matt DeRienzo gave me a nudge after the racist terrorist attack in Charleston:
— Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) June 21, 2015
The link Matt shared was one of three times I have posted here about my views that media should stop giving attention to mass killers. I posted also after the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and last year near the University of California at Santa Barbara.
I will just summarize here the points I’ve made in the other posts, then I’ll discuss some particular aspects of the Charleston slaughter that underscore my point, but make it tougher to follow my advice.
Who is one of the essential 5 W’s of journalism, the questions we should answer in every story. I don’t lightly suggest that we should not name the suspects in mass killings. But we decide not to use newsworthy names in many other cases:
- Most news organizations don’t name rape survivors.
- Most grant confidentiality to some sources whose names would be newsworthy.
- As I noted in last year’s post on this topic, the New York Times and other media withheld the news that Times reporter David Rohde had been abducted by the Taliban.
My point is that we do decide sometimes not to name people and that media try to avoid manipulation in many stories, sometimes downplaying stories about protests or press conferences. And mass killings are the ultimate manipulation of media: Pathetic, evil people kill lots of other people, knowing the news media will give them instant infamy.
The pathetic, evil killer in Charleston is a prime example. He refrained from killing one of the worshipers in the church he attacked, telling her he wanted her to tell what he had said and done. He apparently posted a hateful document online, boasting of his racist view of our country and our world, accompanied by photos of him posing with the Confederate flag and other symbols of racial hatred.
A suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but he has reportedly confessed to the killings, and his motivation couldn’t be more clear: He wanted to express his hatred for African Americans and he wanted notoriety. It’s too late do anything about his first motivation, but we can deny him some satisfaction (and deny future mass killers a sliver of motivation) on his desire for notoriety.
I might go one step further than Mitch and not use the killer’s name at all, but I praise his decision to give attention to the victims over the killer. He’s in a tough situation making tough decisions I have not had to make, and I applaud the coverage he and his staff are providing. Today’s front page was especially powerful:
The Charleston case illustrates that journalists should exercise news judgment, rather than following one-size-fits-all rules.
I generally favor not running photographs of mass killers, as well as not publishing their names or the diatribes they sometimes leave, expressing their hate and amplifying their plea for attention.
The Santa Barbara killer left a misogynistic diatribe that I wouldn’t have published or linked to, because it was a clear cry for attention. And it’s not uncommon for killers to show off their guns or their twisted ideology in photographs that I would usually advocate that media ignore.
But too many Republican politicians, who have been too cowardly about calling out racism in their own party, have been reluctant even to recognize the obvious racism in this crime. South Carolina still flies a Confederate flag
the Stars and Bars on its state capitol grounds. That flag, by the way, wasn’t even a flag of the Confederacy or South Carolina; it was one of many battle flags, given prominence in the 20th Century by the Ku Klux Klan. Liars and Southerners in denial claim it’s a symbol of “heritage,” not racism. So I favor publishing photographs of the confessed killer (without his name) waving this symbol of racism, and I favor linking to his racist diatribe. (I commend to your attention John McIntyre’s post on the topic.) Update: I have edited this paragraph after being informed by Doug Fisher in an email that the “Stars and Bars” was a specific flag of the Confederacy, and not the one flying at the Capitol. Doug, who covered the issue for years for AP in South Carolina, recommends the Wikipedia entry on Confederate flags for a full understanding of their variety and history.
I favor shining a light in the dark corners of our society where racism lurks. And I favor denying attention-seeking murderers the infamy they crave. It’s a tough balance, and I write about this not to criticize editors and news directors who consider the issues and decide differently than I would. I just hope editors will consider that attention is just what these evil thugs want.