June 11, 2014

My colleague Al Tompkins has written about the journalistic imperative of using names whenever we can, including the names of mass murderers. To withhold those names in the hopes of not romanticizing the killer – and not inspiring demented copycats – is an abdication of responsibility by the journalist. We need to know everything we can about the people who terrorize society – and that begins with their names.

I stand with Al on that opinion and would add another layer to his argument in the form of this sidebar: Withholding the name of the killer may have the opposite of the intended effect.

My argument comes not just from the journalism tradition of naming, but from a much larger cultural tradition in which naming is seen as a source of power. We see this in the Judeo-Christian tradition and throughout Western literature, from the way God grants Adam dominion over the animal world by giving the him the power to name the animals. We see it again in a children’s story such as Rumpelstiltskin, in which the only way to foil the evil imp is to learn and then speak his name.

To name something is to own it. To name something is to exercise power over it.

He who must not be named from the Harry Potter movie (Flickr photo by Alex Light https://flic.kr/p/brT18s)

A more recent example of this effect occurs in the seven books that constitute the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. In infancy, Harry survives an attack from the most evil wizard in the world, Lord Voldemort, known widely as “the Dark Lord.” Many in the magic world will lose their lives until Harry defeats Voldemort in the end.

Throughout the seven books only Harry and the good wizard Albus Dumbledore have the courage to speak the name “Voldemort.” When they do, others cringe. He is known by them as “You Know Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

Even when the biggest story of them all emerges, the headline writers of The Daily Prophet, the primary news organ or wizards and witches, will not alter its policy of not naming: “He Who Must Not Be Named Returns.”

But Voldemort is not the Dark Lord’s real name, just a name adopted by him to enhance his power. His real name is Tom Riddle, and the moment that Harry calls him “Tom” is the moment we know that the evil wizard is doomed.

As Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays write in The Language of Names, “New name equals new identity equals newfound power.”

To name serial killers is not to romanticize their actions or to grant them some kind of mythic status. Out of courtesy, the name of the killer need not be emphasized during those especially sensitive moments when we are writing about the lives of his victims.

While we can understand the instinct to not name – or sympathize with the stated purpose of not encouraging imitators – there is more weight to the counter-argument: that we owe it to the public to try to answer that most difficult of journalistic questions “why,” and we cannot possibly find an answer without beginning with the “who,” and the first piece of meaningful evidence of character is likely to be a name.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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