On October 2, 2015, ten people were killed at the hands of a gunman who opened fire in the halls and classrooms of Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.
While the consistent rise in mass shootings fuels highly charged political debates, local citizens like Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin hope that change can occur on a micro level. During a press conference, Hanlin refused to use the name of the current suspect, telling reporters that he would not “give him the credit he probably sought.” While the media raced to confirm the deceased suspect’s identify, he urged reporters not repeat this name, which may “further sensationalize” the gunman’s actions.
Yet shortly after the shooting in Oregon, I encountered one of the most disturbing subject lines ever to pass through my Gmail inbox, and while I never considered Tina Brown’s strange venture to be an accurate source of news, I realized I could not subscribe to a publication that would publish the following headline underneath the photo of a wide-eyed infant: “Shot to Death Before She Was Old Enough to Be Shot at School.”
The Daily Beast’s Michael Daly reported that a stray bullet in Cleveland killed five-month-old Aavielle Nevaeh Wakefield. The reporter tried to claim that while the world was focused on Oregon, “little Aavielle proved that no age is too young to be fatally wounded by a stray bullet in America.”
Using a tabloid-level story about gun violence to make a point about the media’s obsession with gun violence is certainly not the way to rectify the situation.
I promptly hit “unsubscribe.”
According to Quartz’s Corrine Purtill, recent sociological evidence suggests suspects involved in mass shootings emulate those responsible for similar murders. After investigating 160 shootings from 2000-2013, FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit Chief Andre Simmons concluded, “the copycat phenomenon is real.” Manifestos written by gunmen explicitly reference public massacres of recent history, sparking investigations into the suspects’ quantifiable obsession with gun violence. As a result, these profiles of mass murderers often overshadow the stories of the victims themselves.
A concise assessment of these ethical questions was presented during a recent episode NPR’s On The Media, a podcast that documents media bias with a rare critical lens that is made available to those producers lucky enough to work in public radio. The episode features a conversation between Garfield and Tom Teeves, whose son was killed when a gunman opened fire in Colorado movie theatre in 2012.
Teeves is the founder of No Notoriety, a public advocacy effort that has called for a change in the way the media reports these events. On behalf of friends and relatives of other victims killed by acts of gun violence, No Notoriety pleads for media executives to adopt a new editorial policy which “removes or limits the name and likeness of the shooter, except for initial identification…. and when doing so would aid in his capture”
“In a society that has largely ceased to discriminate notoriety from celebrity; that is quick to make icons, antiheroes and even heroes out of sociopaths, what good is giving those sociopaths the posthumous publicity they crave?”
– Bob Garfield, On The Media
Both Garfield and Teeves agree that recent evidence has confirmed the “common threads motivating this kind of outrage,” fueled by excessive profiling of the “troubled, introverted, gun-obsessed misfits.” Teeves cites the FBI’s data and Garfield brings up several case studies that reference copycat tendencies.
However, Teeves argues that journalists can tell these stories without revealing the name and likeness of these suspects, suggesting that the media can curb a national epidemic by adopting policies motivated by public safety.
“My son would be just as dead from someone named John Doe. The name is irrelevant.”
– Tom Teeves, father of slain Aurora shoting victim
When Garfield explicitly explains the public nature of the information, firmly defending the public’s right to know. He points out a few success stories driven by No Notoriety’s efforts, but even Teeves knows that this change needs to happen on a macro level.
This case is largely based on an abstraction; the idea that withholding information can prevent copycat crimes will never reveal hard-and-fast truths about the nature of these murderers. Unfortunately, a compromise between two polarizing polices (always print the name, never print the name) won’t bring widespread, meaningful change. “It has to be something that you guys realize is responsible,” Teeves tells Garfield. “Right now I can tell in your voice that you don’t agree with me. And you’re trained to do exactly what I’m asking you not to.”
Towards the end of the podcast, Garfield illustrates how his job is molded by the steadfast definition of news, with summaries that can be broken down by a formula taught in most American grade-schools: “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.” Leading the charge is the standard profile, implying that the subject of “Who” dictates the structure of a story. Can a journalist write lead about John Doe and still provide the public with a comprehensive account of a mass shooting?
No Notoriety’s plea does not ask journalists to reconsider their professional values. For media critics like Jay Rosen, who asks us to look at journalism “as society’s cultivator, as well as it’s chronicler,” reporters who write stories within No Notoriety’s terms would ultimately promote a healthier public climate. And if journalists were to show cautionary restraint, they would be promoting a new ethical standard brought forth by recent evidence.
Whether this prevents future crimes is arbitrary; in the age of the Internet, it will be relatively easy for those who seek more information to find names, likenesses, and dozens of probing questions about these gunmen.
It may cost these journalists a few readers, but the simple act of withholding the name of a shooter will not damage a publication’s credibility, and it certainty won’t harm anyone other than those who count on some cost-per-click metric.
By taking cues from Sheriff John Hanlin, media organizations (directly and/or indirectly) would prevent future instances of mass murder.
There would be fewer victims, fewer distraught families, fewer breaking reports from schools and theatres and military bases in towns across America.
This means fewer angry Facebook rants, fewer emotional montages of yearbook photos, fewer image marcos put forth by the NRA.
President Obama would make fewer last minute trips across the country to addresses these issues for a 12th, 13th, or 14th time, because as Garfield notes, Obama has made similar remarks 11 times during the 7 years of his Presidency.
Limiting the amount posthumous publicity given to these gunmen has the potential to put a dent in this seemingly insurmountable problem.
If we can’t have fewer guns, if we can’t have a Congress willing to take action, we may as well have less anger. Amidst current public policy debates, No Notoriety’s suggestions seem like a more tangible solution that addresses the common welfare of the American public.