December 20, 2013

Caren Teves wants you journalists to remember her 24-year-old son, Alex, the next time you write a story about a mass shooting. Alex was one of the 11 people who were murdered when a gunman opened fired in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., July 20, 2012.

She wants you to feel free to name her son, to use his photo if you like. But she is asking journalists not to use the name or photos of the accused shooter over and over. Teves and the organization she is a part of, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, are NOT asking for a prohibition against the photos or using the name. She told me, “If you are practicing serious journalism, if the name or the image are really important to the story, then of course you should use it. But every day, it seems, I see these images of these criminals I see or hear their names, and they are being used just for shock value or to get web clicks.”

Teves says she is constantly in touch with other families who have suffered from mass tragedies around America. The families have launched a petition drive to try to convince networks to dial back their use of mass killers’ names and pictures. “These families talk about the pain that the repeated use of the killer’s names and pictures. It is a big issue.”

Beyond the pain, news coverage of high profile crimes does contribute to a killer’s celebrity and celebrities generate followers. Investigators found that the shooter who killed children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., kept detailed records of mass shootings. He was preoccupied with the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. He is not the first. Around the globe, killers and attempted killers said they wanted to commit a Columbine-like attack. Other high-profile cases involve Columbine killer devotees who took their own lives in sympathy with the Columbine shooters.

After the shooting at the Aurora theater where Caren Teves’ son died, police noted three specific cases where copycats directly mentioned the theater shooting as they threatened others. The Denver Post said that after the shootings at Columbine High School, there were at least 3,000 copycat threats made at high schools around America. And the man who carried out the shootings at Virginia Tech compared himself to what he called the Columbine “martyrs.”

The Washington Post once noted, “Marilyn Monroe’s suicide in 1962 allegedly triggered a spike in suicide among young women. Shootings by disgruntled workers at U.S. Postal Service facilities during the 1980s became so relatively common that the phrase “going postal” entered the language. The snipers who terrorized the Washington area in 2002 may have touched off imitators in Ohio, Florida, Britain and Spain shortly thereafter.

I don’t blame journalists for these copycat cases but we have to be aware that high profile cases sometimes inspire repeat acts. And sometimes, they don’t. Despite saturation coverage, there was no increase in attacks on politicians after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. It simply does not follow that publicity always causes more crime.

In an attempt to do something to stop senseless killings, well-meaning experts go so far as to suggest that  journalists withhold the names of suspects in mass shooting cases even for weeks after a killing. They say journalists shouldn’t report specific facts about a shooting or show photos of the suspect at all. The same line of thinking says journalists shouldn’t report on possible motives for the shootings.

I don’t agree. It is too simplistic to draw such a hard line between news reporting and homicidal acts. One does not necessarily lead to the other without adding in other complicated ingredients such as mental illness, addictions and easy access to weapons.

I understand the line of thinking that withholding details of a horrific shooting might spare families more pain. Victim families are stakeholders in tragic events, that’s for certain. And they are not the only stakeholders. Emergency workers, communities and, yes, the country has a stake in these awful events. It is right for journalists to find out and report who did it, who knew about it, and who enabled it and find ways it could have been stopped.

After the 9/11 attacks, it was clear the nation needed to know the names of the attackers and their supporters. We needed to find out how they slipped through airport security security and how to fix it. As The Washington Post pointed out, the extensive reporting the man who carried out the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting “helped expose flaws in Virginia’s mental health system, leading to reforms.” And the Post said extensive reporting on the Columbine shooting focused new attention on troubled teens.

The problem I have with Caren Teves’ petition is its specific wording, not in the spirit in which it is offered. The petition asks journalists to abide by these requests:

– Do not use the name of the shooter, except when necessary in initial identification or to aid in apprehension of a suspect still at large.
– Do not publish photos that glamorize or aggrandize the shooter.
– Do not air self-serving statements made by the shooter.

The requests are too broad. When the shooter is the focus of actual news developments, like a trial, or if police discover new insights about how they carried out their crime, certainly journalists should use the suspect’s name. It is a matter of clarity. What if multiple suspects are involved, as in the Boston bombing case? Would the petitioners be more satisfied if journalists called the suspects Bomber Number One and Bomber Number Two? It is too confusing, and journalists should be in the clarity business. But on the other end of the scale, I think of the overly dramatic reporting about Depression Era thugs coupled with headline grabbing names like “Machine Gun Kelly” that turned him into a household name. We should be looking for ground that lies somewhere between anonymity and celebrity.

Whether a photo glamorizes or aggrandizes a killer may be in the eye of the beholder. One of the most debated cases of self-aggrandizing photos involved the Virginia Tech shooter who sent NBC News a video and photos of himself posing with weapons. Journalists struggled with whether to show the photos, how many to air and for how long. Even staged images like those of the Virginia Tech shooter may give us insight into the brazenness and rage of the killer. Some criminals flat out crave publicity. Bonnie and Clyde grabbed headlines and built their legend by mugging with guns. Just as damaging as photos may be the monikers that journalists apply to suspected killers such as “mysterious,” “ruthless,” or “dark.”  Journalists repeatedly use the photo of the Aurora shooter appearing with strangely bright colored hair, adding to his celebrity aura.

Journalists have struggled with what to do about self-serving statements from suspected criminals for decades. In 1995, 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. Journalists repeatedly had to make decisions about whether to publish or air statements released by Osama bin Laden, giving him a world stage to spew his thoughts.

And still, the rantings of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald provide clues into the motives of those characters.

The tension is always between the pressures of reporting news and not wanting to reward terrorists with publicity. The safe decision may be to claim some imaginary ethical high ground saying you won’t give terrorists or killers the airtime or ink they crave. It sounds good. But I dread the day when journalists turn timid about reporting and important truth just to appear to be sensitive and avoid criticism.

Caren Teves told me, “I feel the pain of losing Alex every day.” While she and I have some disagreement on the details of her proposal for more sensitive news coverage of mass tragedy, generally, I think she is making a reasonable request; that journalists more carefully consider how they report the news.

I tried, in this story to honor her wishes. I wrote the whole piece without using the name of any recent mass killer. We could have decorated the story with file photos of the man who shot her son, but it would have served no journalistic purpose. Before I spoke with Teves, I would have, no doubt, included the names of many of the killers I mentioned in this article. Still, while complying with her request, I don’t think I meaningfully compromised any important truth or clarity.

So I tried to create my own version of her request to move toward the same general outcome she wants while not giving away important journalistic duties:

– Journalists should consider how their coverage will affect victims and their families. The journalist’s first obligation is to seek truth and tell it as fully as possible, while seeking ways to minimize the harm that coverage will cause.

-Journalists should avoid the repeated and unjustified use of images that could glamorize criminals and their actions. Journalists should avoid using monikers or nicknames for criminals that minimize the harm they have caused. 

-It is not the journalists’ job to vilify a suspect who has not been convicted either. Be careful to use accurate images of the suspect that are as current as possible. Pay special attention to the adjectives you use to describe the subject, sticking to objective factual adjectives rather than opinion laden subjective adjectives.

-Use extra caution when deciding whether to air or publish statements from the accused criminal, especially if the accuser attempts to blame others for his/her actions. Be especially circumspect about whether to allow the accused to name others for blame. If you do publish/broadcast such statements, attempt to put them into context, testing the statements for accuracy and truth.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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