When Should We Publish the Rantings of Criminals and Terrorists?

By Thursday afternoon, it seemed likely that the man who flew a small plane into a building housing the IRS in Austin, Texas, had left behind an online message, part suicide note and part manifesto. The posting, dated Feb. 18, was removed from a Web site registered to Andrew Joseph Stack. The Web site says the FBI requested the removal, but The Smoking Gun had already snagged and posted it

Journalists have to wrestle with whether, when, why and how they share these kinds of messages with the public. On the one hand, publishing a manifesto gives an alleged terrorist or criminal exactly what he or she wants: a public stage on which to spout off before committing a cowardly, violent act.

On the other hand, as journalists, our job is to seek truth and tell it as fully as possible, according to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. Why would we shield the public from an unfiltered look inside the mind of a killer?

From the Unabomber to Virginia Tech

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We have walked this trail many times before. We faced the same decision when Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho released a videotape in which he said, "You forced me into a corner." 

Back in 2007, after NBC and msnbc.com published some of Cho's photos, videos and manifesto, msnbc.com reported that one of its message boards "was inundated with more than 1,200 postings in less than 12 hours. Some of the response [praised] the network for bringing Cho's mental illness graphically to light, but most castigated NBC for seeming to give Cho the attention he wanted. "

The Cho video was augmented by especially disturbing photos showing him holding weapons.

In 1995, journalists faced an even tougher call. Ted Kaczynski, the terrorist known as the Unabomber, threatened to continue his bombing attacks unless national media published his 35,000-word manifesto against science and technology. The New York Times and The Washington Post published it.

We make similar decisions every time Osama bin Laden releases a new tape. A month after the 9/11 attacks, the White House asked journalists to withhold airing and publishing transcripts of al-Qaida videotapes, fearing they may contain coded messages to other terrorists.

A thought on suicides

I think it would be useful to think about publishing these manifestos in a similar way that we cover suicide. Like suicide notes, manifestos often portray the attacker's actions as the only logical -- and even heroic -- act that they could choose. This kind of glorification can lead to the "contagion effect," according to the American Association of Suicidology. [PDF]

Manifestos sometimes blame surface problems for the situation. In the Austin case, Stack wrote about the tax system, his job, a failed marriage and debt. But you shouldn't oversimplify why people take their lives. The American Association of Suicidology notes that people who commit these crimes, who commit suicide -- and the Austin attack included a suicide -- usually have an underlying mental illness:

"The cause of an individual suicide is invariably more complicated than a recent painful event such as the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a job. An individual suicide cannot be adequately explained as the understandable response to an individual's stressful occupation, or an individual's membership in a group encountering discrimination. Social conditions alone do not explain a suicide. People who appear to become suicidal in response to such events, or in response to a physical illness, generally have significant underlying mental problems, though they may be well-hidden."

What questions should we consider in cases like this?

One question may be, "What do we know about the suspect's mental condition?" Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • What is the journalistic reason for giving the attacker a public platform? How does the writing or statement help us understand the story in important ways?
  • How sure are we that the suspect actually wrote the statement? This will become more important as people leave messages on social network sites before they commit crimes. The Austin attacker's writings were viral on Twitter all afternoon. But anybody could have created that site with a false registration, just as anybody could pose as somebody else on a blog or Facebook page.
  • What is the tone of the coverage? The Cho photographs, for example, showed him holding two pistols and made him appear to be violent and threatening. That's probably exactly how he wanted to be seen. Do your headlines, for instance, glorify the attacker?
  • Who could be harmed? How could publishing these kinds of messages encourage others to act in order to get attention? How would you feel if you were a victim or the family member of a victim?
  • Is the manifesto more newsworthy if it is disclosed in the initial coverage of the event, such as in the Austin case, as opposed to days later, as with the Virginia Tech shooting? If the writings emerge some time later, to families of the victims it could feel like a second assault.
  • How is a manifesto different if the writer names or blames another person for his or her troubles?  With Stack, would your decision have been different if he had named someone at the IRS?
  • How is linking to a site that has published the text different from publishing it yourself?
  • Can you explain your decision to publish or not publish the writings, video or photographs? Does your decision depend on your publishing platform? For example, if you would not broadcast or print large sections of Stack's manifesto, why would you publish it online?

I invite you to share your newsroom's thinking on how you handled this case. No doubt, the media will face this decision again.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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