Stop Glamorizing Mass Shootings

December 22nd, 2013

The Times has an important piece, titled “A Plea to Deny Gunmen Their Quest for Infamy.”

Call him the gunman. Call him the killer or the perpetrator, the defendant or the assailant. Only, the survivors urge, do not say his name.

This is the new plea after another shooting has upended a community in suburban Denver and turned a high school into a bloody crime scene. As people grope for responses, many families of victims and law enforcement officials have begun urging journalists and public officials to avoid using the gunmen’s names and photos in public.

For families, it is a small way to fight back. Their hope is that refusing to name the actors will mute the effects of their actions, and prevent other angry, troubled young men from being inspired by the infamy of those who opened fire in Columbine High School, Virginia Tech or Newtown, Conn.

This is an important point I have made several times. The nonstop media coverage of mass shootings does litlte to help the situation, and likely hurts others through the copycat effect.

Despite the urging of some families, few news outlets have excised the names of killers from their coverage. It is one of the most basic facts, and a difficult one to omit as reporters try to unravel questions about the mental health and private anger of these gunmen, and whether they had given any warning signs. ….

Would it even have an effect? Social scientists have found a nexus between suicides and news coverage, suggesting that extensive stories detailing methods and motives may drive others to kill themselves in similar ways. But the links between news coverage and mass shootings are far more tenuous, Ms. McBride said.

Social scientists and criminologists say the forces driving these shootings are a kaleidoscope of anger, revenge, insecurity, immaturity, mental illness, a desire for notoriety and myriad other factors, including easy access to weapons. In Colorado, the passage of tighter gun control laws did not prevent Mr. Pierson from legally buying the shotgun and ammunition he used to carry out the attack, officials said.

Dave Cullen, the author of “Columbine,” a book about the 1999 attack near Littleton, Colo., said that mass shootings were often public performances by frustrated young men who had suffered failures or loss. They were “about being heard and felt,” in the worst way, he said. In a September essay for BuzzFeed, he suggested that news coverage use suspects’ names “sparingly” during the first two days after a shooting, and then only make oblique references.

“Disappear the person,” Mr. Cullen said. “If you take that away, it takes away the whole point for him.”

I will be speaking at the 28th Law & the Media Seminar in Houston on January 25, 2014. The theme of the panel is “Campus Crises: Balancing Safety, Privacy, Due Process, and the Public’s Right to Know.” The Seminar will focus on how the media covers school violence. I will be sure to share these thoughts, and my soon-to-be-released paper with Shelby Baird, titled “The Shooting Cycle.”