We can’t have a reasonable debate about media coverage of mass killers if people fail to understand the opposing arguments.
Andrew Seaman’s post this week for the SPC Ethics Committee Blog misstates the arguments in favor of not naming or publishing photographs of mass killers.
The headline, “Ignoring a Problem Doesn’t Make It Go Away,” falsely implies that refusing to give mass killers the attention they seek is “ignoring” the problems of gun violence, mental illness or whatever problems each mass shooting illustrates.
That is as absurd as saying that withholding names of rape survivors from stories about sexual assault is tantamount to ignoring the problem of rape. We can cover rape without naming victims. We can cover national security without naming sources whose jobs or lives might be in jeopardy. And we can cover mass shootings without naming people whose actions and words leave no doubt that they are seeking attention.
The “censored” illustration with the graphic is a similarly inaccurate reflection of the argument not to name mass shooters. I have not suggested, and I don’t know anyone who has, that the government not allow publication of the names or photographs of mass shooters. That’s what censorship is, and I would fight such a measure as aggressively as anyone. To repeat my earlier analogy, news organizations are not censoring the names of rape victims or unnamed sources. Those organizations are making sound ethical and news judgments. A more appropriate illustration would have been a graphic depiction of the word judgment. (In fairness, I don’t know whether Seaman made or suggested the graphic, but the headline certainly reflects his post, which did refer to “ignoring” a problem.)
The post was prompted by the Brady Campaign’s Zero Minutes of Fame Chrome browser plug-in and an accompanying petition calling on media not to name mass killers or publish their photographs. Seaman’s explanation of the motivation is completely wrong (at least from my perspective):
The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.
I have written on this topic many times (links at the end of this post). I don’t think that our nation’s curse of mass shootings is simple enough that any single measure (or probably any combination of measures) will stop mass shootings. But I am sick and tired of the gun lobby dismissing arguments for stronger gun law, in part by saying tighter gun restrictions won’t stop mass shootings or mass killings. And I’m embarrassed to see journalists making a similar argument.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics has a core principle that says “Minimize Harm.” It doesn’t say “Stop Harm.”
Though no single action can reverse the evil that causes mass violence, some actions might prevent some incidents of violence. And a profession that claims minimizing harm as a core value should be able to discuss this issue without sounding like a journalism version of the National Rifle Association.
All the clauses in our ethics code designed to protect journalists’ credibility have not succeeded in generating high trust among the public for journalists. We do them not because we are guaranteed good results. We do them because they are right.
Mass killers have told us time and time again — through actions and through their own blog posts, social media posts and other diatribes — that they want media attention. These people are sick and they are violent. Perhaps knowing they wouldn’t get their 15 minutes of infamy won’t stop their violent binges. But the media deliberately and knowingly reward them and give them the attention they crave, and how in the world can we view that as ethical?
If not giving attention to mass killers prevents one killing, then that’s a good result (and we’ll never know what didn’t happen). And if it doesn’t have any impact at all, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do. I believe in protecting the privacy of rape survivors, and have written many stories about rape without using survivors’ names. But I don’t think protecting victims’ privacy is a higher moral or ethical imperative than refusing to reward attention-seeking violence.
More from Seaman:
Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious.
How “extreme” is it to withhold names in stories? To move beyond the examples I’ve used of unnamed sources and rape survivors, media sometimes have chosen not to even report the kidnappings of journalists. That was extreme (and justified) and that kept important news off the front page.
But again, no one that I know of is suggesting that we don’t report on the actions of mass killers or move the stories off the front page. We should report the violence and the deaths and tell the stories of the victims’ lives and deaths. We should examine the gun laws, mental health issues and security issues that each outburst raises. We can do all of that, on the front page and in the opening minutes of newscasts, without names or photographs.
Seaman’s argument (and others I have read and heard) becomes pointless because he is debating a straw man. The argument for using names is much stronger than Seaman’s argument: Who is the first of journalism’s basic 5 W’s; the public wants to know who would do something so heinous; the absence of the names would be a significant hole in news stories. Every time I write or speak about this, I have a strong internal debate because all my journalistic default settings say we should name names. But Seaman and others who dismiss the arguments for withholding names don’t even bother to learn and understand the valid reasons on the other side of the argument.
Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post made a similarly dismissive argument last October, suggesting that it was “political correctness” to withhold names, an argument that is absurd on two levels:
- If the political-correctness cliché has any meaning any more, it’s about conformity. Nearly all the media conform to the longstanding practice of naming killers. This isn’t about trying to bully people into conformity. It’s asking someone to have the courage to break from conformity.
- Anytime someone uses “political correctness” as a cudgel in an argument, it’s a dead giveaway that you know you can’t win the argument on your merits, so you resort to irrelevant name-calling.
Back to Seaman: Without providing a shred of evidence that attention to mass killers isn’t a factor in their violence, he dismissed an Arizona State University study study that showed a connection between mass killings and previous massacres:
The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.
In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all facts.
Well, here’s a substantially larger body of evidence:
- The Virginia Tech killer sent a video to NBC before he went on his rampage.
- The Santa Barbara murderer left behind a written diatribe explaining his misogynist motives.
- Last year’s Virginia gunman opened fire on live TV and boasted of the killing on social media. (Yes, a professional media blackout on names wouldn’t prevent boasting, speculation or accurate reporting of killers’ names on social media, but we still should do what it is right.)
- Last year’s Oregon mass killer wrote that he was seeking the same sort of attention as the Virginia gunman had received.
- The Charleston church assassin left a victim alive so she could recount what happened.
Don’t take my word for it, or some Arizona State researchers’ word for it. Take the word of the killers, again and again.
How many people have to die before journalists admit what is obvious? We are being played. Our attention is part of the motive for repeated acts of mass violence in our country. We either need to take action to minimize harm, or we should stop being hypocrites and remove those words from our Code of Ethics.
Seaman is the chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee. I sent him a draft of this post and he responded:
I accept your criticism as completely valid, but I still stick to my arguments that it’s extreme to push for complete omission. As for evidence, I want more than anecdotes and a single study. However, I don’t see this as an argument between position A or B. I think everyone has the goal of more responsible journalism. The question is: how do we achieve that goal?
In my opinion, one problem is that organizations have come up with arbitrary best practices for the coverage of traumatic events. After I saw the Brady Campaign’s announcement, I realized that it will likely be best to bring these conversations together to come up with evidence- and practice-based guidelines for journalists covering traumatic events – ranging from suicide to mass casualty events.
I placed a couple calls on Wednesday to some people within SPJ, and I hope to start coordinating a meeting of interest groups. Those will include journalism organizations, news organizations, researchers, doctors, victims rights advocates and others. I think better journalism will results if we can all meet, agree on some basic guidelines, open them up for criticism and then educate working journalists about those guidelines. Together we can all make a change.
Moving forward, I plan to put a lot of time into bringing these parties together to start focusing our efforts on addressing these recurring questions.
I know this may not specifically answer your questions or criticism, but hopefully it shows where I’m coming from on this topic.
Seaman invited me to join the group he is forming to discuss this issue, and I gladly agreed. As critical as I am of last week’s post, if it starts a more reasonable conversation about this issue among journalists, I welcome it.
Update: Seaman blogged again about his plans for the working group to consider this issue. I look forward to the discussion and appreciate Andrew’s initiative.
* I recounted five familiar mass slayings without using any names. Did the absence of names at all hinder my ability to make points about those slayings?
Previous posts on naming mass killers