Why you should care
Because blaming “the media” is a cop-out.
Caren Lissner is the longtime editor-in-chief of the Hudson Reporter newspaper group in Hoboken, New Jersey, and has written about domestic violence, mass shootings and the media for several national publications.
When a gunman killed 26 people in a Texas church, CNN’s Anderson Cooper purposely withheld the perpetrator’s name. “We don’t say the killer’s name,” he declared. His response was part of a chorus that rings out after every such tragedy, suggesting that withholding shooters’ names will help prevent copycats. Critics across the web repeated the no-name mantra. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times called Cooper’s stance “silly and self-important,” and the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank, posted reasons why it’s necessary to name shooters.
Why so many diverging opinions on releasing killers’ names? Would withholding the information really cut down on the notoriety the FBI says some shooters crave? To be clear, recent studies have indeed suggested that large-scale killings have a contagion effect — often leading to similar tragedies within two weeks — and law enforcement officials recommend that media be cautious in reporting these events. They’ve urged news outlets to avoid publishing killers’ manifestos, withhold their photographs and stop using characterizations like “lone wolf.” But most studies have not said — as opposed to what you might read — that journalists should completely avoid mentioning killers’ names. Repeating “don’t name the shooter” without context merely scapegoats news outlets for mass tragedies, diverts attention from more detailed discussions of how these incidents should be covered and, worst of all, distracts from conversations about the roots of the tragedies and how to curb them.
Calls for “the media” to do anything are always an egregious oversimplification.
The church massacre was one of four recent mass killings in which a man targeted his wife or ex-wife and took down several bystanders. The issue of mentioning shooters’ names is worth discussing — just in a more complex way, with nuanced solutions. Recent articles about the topic have focused on a 2015 Arizona State University study, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings.” The paper notes that past research showed that media reports of suicides appear to lead to copycats. Could this be applied to mass shootings? Researchers concluded that large-scale shootings (four or more deaths) appear to lead to similar events within 13 days. Since researchers didn’t see a similar correlation in incidents with lower victim counts, they believe the tragedies with widespread press coverage spurred copycats.
But the study’s other conclusions about mass shootings are often left out of editorials. “While our analysis was initially inspired by the hypothesis that mass media attention given to sensational violent events may promote ideation in vulnerable individuals,” the researchers wrote, “what our analysis tests is whether temporal patterns in the data indicate evidence for contagion, by whatever means.” They added, “We find that state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings and mass shootings …” Researcher Sherry Towers tells OZY that repeating killers’ names is unnecessary, but she believes withholding them entirely could lead to conspiracy theories. Also, she would need a year or two of data sets to see if withholding names had any effect. “It goes beyond just the name,” she says, expressing dismay that media outlets covering October’s Las Vegas shooting gave explicit technical details.
So what about withholding names completely? Experts have suggested that shooters can be inspired by prior events or seek media coverage and notoriety. Some in law enforcement have tried to push back, like the Oregon sheriff who refused to name a 2015 shooter at Umpqua Community College. But the absence of a name can leave a dangerous vacuum: In the 2012 Newton, Connecticut, school shooting, for instance, an unofficial source incorrectly released the name of the shooter’s brother. The false name spread throughout the internet before law enforcement corrected it. Incorrect shooter names can go viral in minutes.
So should news outlets withhold names completely, mention them for a few hours or a day, or, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recommended in 2012, withhold them for several weeks? In 2015, a couple whose son was murdered in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater started the “No Notoriety” campaign, advocating to “limit the name and likeness of the individual in reporting after initial identification, except when the alleged assailant is still at large.” This raises the question of how long “initial identification” should last.
One thing is clear: It’s time for law enforcement and major news outlets to collaborate and set coverage guidelines, and they must distinguish between TV, print and social media, because standards and methods diverge. Calls for “the media” to do anything are always an egregious oversimplification.