Media can’t keep quiet on identities of killers

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Senseless mass shootings have become so grimly commonplace in the United States – like “a plague dispatched from some inhuman realm,” in the words of Ari N. Schulman, the executive editor of the journal New Atlantis – that media coverage of them has come to follow a predictable blueprint.

There’s the “breaking news” of shots fired, footage of law enforcement hovering outside a structure, the frantic and confused flight of survivors and then increasingly bleak reports of casualties.

Within a couple of hours, the name of a perpetrator or two emerges, and the hunt for a motive and the sorrowful chorus of questions of whether clues were missed and signals were ignored begins.

Some friends and families of individuals killed in these rampages have launched an online petition drive asking that one of these elements be left out of the mix – the identities of the murderers and photos of them. If the assassins cap off their deeds by taking their own lives – and that, more often than not, seems to be how these events unfold – they are asking that any self-serving manifestos or statements left behind not be disseminated.

They argue that seeing images of the shooters or reading about how they assembled their arsenals or picked their victims only exacerbates their pain. Moreover, they say that denying killers publicity would prevent copycats from treading the same demented path. In fact, after a school shooting in Colorado Dec. 13, a sheriff declined to identify the gunman, saying that he had committed “ … an act of evil and in my opinion deserves no notoriety and certainly no celebrity. He deserves no recognition.”

While no journalist with any sort of sensitivity or conscience would want to inflict additional distress on families in the depths of unimaginable grief, and boundaries of taste and decorum should be observed, the media would be performing a disservice if it did not report the names of killers who carry out mass shootings, or any other atrocity. It’s not only a key component of the public’s right to know, but also can provide much-needed clarity in the aftermath of tragedies.

First, the argument of those who want to suppress details about mass shooters rests on the assumption that notoriety is the primary motive of these demented souls. Though some might harbor sickening fantasies of their names ricocheting around the media universe after they have shot up a school or shopping center, satisfying a thirst for fame is most often not their primary objective. They tend to be driven by a hell-broth of delusions, resentments, anger and a score of other incomprehensible grievances. It’s not as if they failed “America’s Got Talent” auditions and they see a shooting spree as an easier path to glory.

Al Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute journalism school, correctly pointed out that there’s no reliable evidence that coverage of mass shootings generates more of them: “One does not necessarily lead to the other without adding in other complicated ingredients such as mental illness, addictions and easy access to weapons.”

Besides, in an age of Twitter feeds and Facebook friends, keeping the names of killers under wraps would be impossible. Within hours, identities would be circulating through social media, as might misinformation that could damage the lives and reputations of innocent individuals. If you thought the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bred conspiracy theories, imagine the number that would have blossomed if we were left in the dark on who flew the planes into the World Trade Center or Pentagon.

The “plague dispatched from some inhuman realm” will only seem more inhuman if we can’t learn about the humans responsible.

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