Identifying mass murderers, or any killer, does not promote massacres and other crimes.
Police, public officials, and well-meaning victim groups undermine critical freedom of information principles and endanger us all by continuing to wrongly demand we shield names and information about people who commit atrocities with guns, knives or bombs.
Stop doing it.
Hours after the most recent gunman in Christchurch shot dead more than 50 innocent people and wounded dozens more, the calls began in earnest to quit using Brenton Tarrant’s name in stories about his vulgar crimes.
As well-meaning as it is, it’s absurd, and it’s dangerous.
Backed by a handful of fuzzy studies that are not conclusive, victims, victim advocates and police lean on the media to not only scale back coverage of perpetrators of mass shootings, but also to not picture or name them.
The notion is bereft of common sense.
There is no doubt that some craven mass murderers are intrigued by the notion of fame and notoriety. They see their heinous crimes as a way to get their warped star on the gun-massacre walk of fame in Wikipedia.
Common sense, however, dictates that the cataclysms and ensuing reporting, even the attention of police, provides the titillation and attention they want.
On more than one occasion, as a newspaper editor where one of the nation’s most vile and shocking mass murders took place, I have been bullied, threatened and badgered to not name shooter James Holmes. I’ve been goaded to keep his name out of stories and editorials regarding his crimes, his sentencing, his prison location, his past and his place in the history of Aurora and the state in regards to gun-control and other laws meant to protect the public.
I’m not talking about tabby TV and newspaper coverage that salaciously treats mass murder just like they do every other story about celebrity melodrama or human misery.
Caren and Tom Teves, whose son Alex was among those murdered during the Aurora theater shooting, have long worked to draw a line between serious, responsible and critical coverage of gun-violence catastrophes and gratuitous details and story play. In creating No Notoriety, they set apart what journalists must do and what is superfluous.
Over the years, I’ve agreed and disagreed with the Teves on requests and directions. They understand that journalists can be sensitive to victims and allegiant to critical journalistic canons at the same time.
There is, however, a very real and very serious push for mainstream, responsible and professional journalists to not name perpetrators of mass shootings.
It’s as ludicrous and dangerous as was the world of Harry Potter referring to Lord Voldemort as “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
Our job as journalists is to let the news drive our news judgment. While much of what we do is aimed at satisfying natural and critical human curiosity, our relentless push for transparency is what keeps malevolent and even well-meaning public officials on the straight and narrow.
I have been pressed hundreds of time by local and national police, local and national officials to keep some critical aspect of the news out of the public eye. The requests and sometimes threats are both benevolent and malevolent.
Local police regularly work to keep details of crimes from us and the public. Often, police or prosecutors cite the need to ensure the “integrity” of a criminal case. And many times, they cite the need for sensitivity to victims and even perpetrators. They are often misguided and outright wrong.
Colorado open records laws were purposely created to ensure that the government must defend why any information should be kept secret, rather than the press and public having to prove why information should be made public. It’s a critical difference.
A few years ago, a man hanged himself from a busy bridge within sight of a nearby elementary school. I barraged by complaints of running a story explaining why a public school was locked down. I was also badgered about publishing the name of the man of who created the lurid and dangerous spectacle. More than one critic said it will inspire others to do the same thing.
It hasn’t. It won’t.
The facts, accuracy and the importance of news is what guides the judgment of reporters and editors in determining how and when to use names, photographs and prominence in stories about mass murders and every other story we handle.
Most important, by creating euphemisms for horrendous crimes and the people who commit them, we detract from the very real horror of the events.
The media cannot become complicit with politically motivated schemes to play down the seriousness of any event in human history, any more than we should be complicit in overplaying it.
Minimizing a story about more than 50 people gunned down during Muslim prayers doesn’t make the event any less worse than it is. It really happened, and — trust me on this — these grisly events really can happen anywhere.
It can even happen in Christchurch and Aurora.
By focusing on the false role of the media in causing mass shootings, governments evade solving the complex problems in this nation and all over the world, of which mass shootings are a symptom.
The more we know about guns, gun laws, perpetrators, human psychology, white supremacist groups, their websites and followers, the better are the chances of finding real solutions in curtailing mass murders.
But pushing on journalists to keep quiet about these catastrophes or to just whisper the names of people responsible for them?
No. A massacre or a shooter by any other name is still Brenton Tarrant, James Holmes or the next monster who shoots up a crowd because society can’t stop him, not because journalists incite him.