June 11, 2014

Sun News in Canada is not naming the person accused of killing three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and wounding two others last week in Moncton, New Brunswick. The network said in an editorial:

When it comes to mass murders, too often, it is attention and infamy they crave. Luckily, shootings of this nature are rare in Canada.

And, in the U.S. they account for less than one percent of all gun-related deaths. Far more people have been killed in the bad neighborhoods of Chicago than were killed in all of the mass shootings combined. But these rare incidents are never forgotten. And with the rise of social media, they have become a spectacle.

It is easy to report on the life of the killer, to scour his deranged Facebook page, to speculate about motive, but doing so could actually encourage the perception that his heinous acts are somehow justified.

The K9 partner of slain RCMP Const. Dave Ross sits by his casket at a regimental funeral yesterday in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. Fabrice Gevaudan and Douglas Larche were also killed on June 4.

The policy sets up a false dichotomy. Either be irresponsible and speculate or don’t report at all. It ignores the possibility that full, thoughtful reporting might lead to understanding and even prevention.

For example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch produced a spectacular investigation into how James Holmes, the man accused in the Aurora theater shooting got the ammo he used. The Post-Dispatch shows how Holmes purchased thousands of rounds of ammo and tear gas canisters online, legally.

PBS Frontline and The Hartford Courant deeply and responsibly reported on who Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza was, how he grew up and what we could learn about him that could help us understand what lead up to the Sandy Hook shooting.

When we explore who the killers are, we come to more clearly understand their motives. ProPublica this week reported about misinformation regarding connections between mental illness and mass killings.

Sun News correctly points out that sometimes news events inspire copycats. (Sometimes people see others doing good, charitable things and they copy that act, too.) But who among us would suggest journalists should not have identified and investigated everything there was to know about the 9/11 hijackers? The wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing has not lead to copycat bombings; the coverage of the horrific Oklahoma City federal courthouse bombing didn’t lead to similar terrorism.

As The Washington Post pointed out, the extensive reporting on the man who carried out the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting “helped expose flaws in Virginia’s mental health system, leading to reforms.” The Virginia Tech shooting lead to campus security reforms. Emails from Seung-Hui Cho to his professors revealed valuable insight into the mind of a troubled young man.

The journalist’s job is to seek truth and report it as fully as possible. We should limit the harm we cause in our reporting when possible. But the first obligation is to report, not withhold information. It is right to think about the tone of the coverage. The Virginia Tech shooter wanted to be seen holding weapons and scowling. The iconic image of him doing so was news for a short time, but the repeated use of the image became more difficult to justify over time.

Of course we should ask how we display images of accused killers.  We have come a long way from giving criminals innocuous sounding and even glorifying names like “Baby Face Nelson” or “Ma Barker.” But the public has a need and a desire to know who has been accused of a crime, what evidence there is to make that accusation and how the crime happened. Some countries, including Canada, subscribe to the idea that the public has no right to know details of the case until trial. But when it might take years for a case to come to trial, the details of a system that failed to protect the public could stay broken far too long.

When we understand the problem, we avoid quick-fix solutions that don’t work. The surest solution to any problem begins with the free flow of reliable information. I generally default to “report,” not “withhold.”

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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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