Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm

How journalism got here and where it goes next

June 7, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Just one week ago, newsrooms mobilized to cover yet another mass shooting, this time in a municipal building in Virginia Beach. As they told the story of the 12 murders, the vast majority of newspapers and TV stations covering the tragedy embraced the practice of not using the shooter’s name unless it was absolutely necessary.

For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.

It demonstrates that newsrooms can alter their standards and practices in a fairly dramatic way over a relatively short period of time when presented with convincing evidence, even after refusing to make those same changes in the face of public pressure but weak evidence. Even so, stepping forward into the new best practice, journalists are still clearly looking for the balance of relevant accountability reporting about the backgrounds of specific shooters that informs citizens without glorifying a criminal at the expense of victims or worse, creating materials that will inspire future mass murders.

The pressure to not name shooters began in 2012, after the attack on a Colorado movie theater. Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex died in the shooting, founded the No Notoriety movement. Four years ago, in 2015, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pledged not to utter a shooter’s name. Just two years ago in 2017, a handful of local and national news anchors followed suit. Cooper and the handful of anchors who joined him caught a fair amount of criticism from other journalists, including me.

At the time, Cooper and others, including many in law enforcement, were arguing for a near-complete ban on naming mass shooters. While journalists who worried that such a policy would prevent accountability reporting found that hard to support, it was easier to get behind the consortium of experts, led by SAVE, which produced a comprehensive guide for journalists on Covering Mass Shootings. These recommendations, rooted in research, offer advice on minimizing the shooter’s name, as well as other suggestions, including not juxtaposing photos of the shooter and the victims, not using images of the shooter posing with weapons, and being cautious about documents, videos or notes created by the shooter.

(Poynter has a webinar based on SAVE’s recommendations.)

The motivation for Cooper and the many other anchors who refused to name shooters came from the No Notoriety movement. They didn’t want the public to remember the name of the shooter over the names of the victims. The motive behind the Covering Mass Shootings recommendations was to prevent future shootings.

It’s become clear to researchers that mass shootings bear an element of contagion. Some shooters are trying to set records; they are out for notoriety. Others simply see mass violence as a solution to their problems. Either way, keeping their names out of the headlines may be a key step toward not inspiring others.

Law enforcement and public officials initially suggested complete bans, but more recently they’ve opted for moderation.

Last week, Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera said, “We will mention his name once, then he will forever be referred to as the suspect.” Colorado 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler made a similar statement after the Denver school shooting in March. After the Christchurch shooting, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to say the name at all.

What didn’t work in 2015 is working now. Journalists everywhere are convinced. The practice has been codified in newsrooms across the country — so much so that with this most recent shooting, there was no need to remind journalists what the policies are.

“Feels to me like it’s become increasingly common for the media to be judicious about using the suspect’s name. And to focus on other issues — the victims, the response, the questions about security, etc.,” NPR Standards Editor Mark Memmott wrote in an email. “We didn’t have to send out a reminder. Sad, isn’t it?”

Journalists can employ a number of other descriptors, including “the assailant,” “the gunman” or “the employee,” in addition to calling him the shooter or suspect. In a pivot from coverage of years past, the shooter’s name often isn’t mentioned at all. In the small number of stories where journalists deem the name relevant, it usually appears one-third of the way into the story. Suspect names rarely appear in headlines, teasers or tweets.

Journalists will have to figure out how to apply this policy evenly. Even Cooper, along with every other media outlet, prominently named the husband and wife who shot up a holiday party at a municipal building in San Bernardino in 2016, citing terrorism.

But terrorists are also seeking notoriety. And you can clearly report terrorist motivations without naming the shooters.

Journalists must not lose their natural curiosity to uncover as much information about the shooter as possible. While it may be impossible to ever explain why someone would commit such violence, we shouldn’t stop looking for clues.

Putting those clues into a broader context requires skill and judgment. Look to the Sun Sentinel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Parkland shooting for examples of a well-rounded approach. Yes, they include an in-depth look at the suspect. But they also include stories of law enforcement ignoring tips and warnings, of an ineffective police response, and stories of what worked and what didn’t in the effort to save lives.

The evolving sophistication in covering a mass shooting is perhaps a silver lining.

A 2012 column in Psychology Today pointed to a patient zero in the spread of mass shootings. In 1996, a full three years before the shooting at Columbine High School, a student in Moses Lake, Washington, killed a teacher and two other students at Frontier High School. At the time, I worked at the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Washington. And it was true that our coverage indulged in every detail we could get about the suspect, including his obsession with a Stephen King story about a student who kills his algebra teacher.

At the time, the story was so inconceivable, we couldn’t get enough information in our quest to understand something as foreign as a child shooting his teachers and classmates. Although I was not involved with the coverage, I was preoccupied with the shooter’s story and encouraged my colleagues as they pursued every nugget of information they could dig up.

These days, we can’t keep mass shootings straight. A few stand out, like Parkland or Las Vegas. But for the average news consumer, the details of most mass shootings run together. There’s a drill to the coverage as well. After the suspect is arrested or killed, journalists gather stories from survivors and first responders. The police hold a press conference. Spontaneous memorials pop up. The living are left to gather at vigils, holding candles as they hold each other up.

The shift in journalism from focusing stories on the shooter to focusing stories on the victims is a development of necessity. After a while, the shooters all start to look the same. And there have been so many that it is no longer easy to believe that any in-depth reporting will explain the motives behind a mass shooting.

Hero stories and litanies of the dead tell us more about the human condition.

As the public becomes numb, journalists also must push for stories that go beyond comfort and sorrow. Because mass shootings themselves seem to be inevitable for the foreseeable future, accountability reporting about where the guns come from, how the survivors survive and how the authorities protect the public are the critical work of public service journalism.

Kelly McBride is the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute