The Fame Monster
It seems like clockwork. Whenever there is a mass shooting, someone on Twitter sends out a tweet saying no one should say the killer’s name. There is almost always someone out there that takes media agencies to task for “celebrating” the killer, by using their name. In the hours following the Christchurch, New Zealand shooting, we saw the tweets asking people to not say the killers name- just like clockwork.
Mass shootings are odd events in that they make people do odd things. Most people never seem to mind naming the names of terrorists or rapists for that reason, but when it comes to mass shooters, there is a desire, especially among conservatives, that the perpetrator not be named. Why? Because supposedly the killers are doing this because they want to be famous, they want, they crave fame and killing scores of people is the way to do it.
So, the desire then becomes that the media basically needs to not give the killer oxygen. Columnist Megan McArdle takes this to a logical extreme — to pretend it isn’t happening:
No matter your opinions about gun control, or funding mental-health treatment, or softening the anomie of the modern world, here’s an intervention to consider: Stop giving them what they want.
Don’t watch their videos, or even speak their names. Media companies should decline to give their horrible crimes extensive coverage, and audiences should decline to consume it. Give their atrocities no more attention than a highway car wreck, and let their deeds disappear into two column inches on page A24 of the newspaper or, better yet, into the transcripts of an unremarked court trial.
In other words, let’s pretend it’s not happening: While the axioms against ignoring elephants in the living room may be generally wise, this is the rare case where strategic obliviousness might actually cause the beast to leave or, at least, visit much less often.
So, basically, McArdle is saying that the next time someone goes and kills 10, 20, 30 people we should just turn off our TVs, shrug our shoulders and say, “meh.”
I usually tend to agree with McArdle on a lot of things, but this is basically the silliest idea I’ve ever heard. If we just ignore the elephant in the room, then mass shootings will just stop. Uh-huh.
While I’m not a journalist these days, I was trained as one and my inner reporter thinks ignoring something like a mass shooting is bad journalism. When major events, major tragedies happen it is the duty of the press to go and report. They are there to report the news, not glorify the bad people, but to report what is going on. When these events happen, there are questions that need to be asked in order to learn why this happened and maybe how we can make it less likely.
In 2015, a gunman took 9 lives at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Immediately following the event, the county sherriff, John Hanlin said he would not name the gunman’s name citing this is probably what they wanted and he also urged the media to also not name the shooter. Cameron Barr, the then national editor for the Washington Post, said that the media should not follow the sheriff’s advice:
Chris Harper Mercer is an accused mass murderer and we intend to report on his motivations and background as accurately and fully as we can. We believe that comprehensive information about those responsible for mass shootings and other horrendous events informs the public debate. While I can appreciate the revulsion that people feel in the wake of such an incident, we see no benefit in withholding information from readers.
Justin Peters goes even farther to say that the killers in most cases got what they wanted: guns to kill lots of people:
Chris Harper Mercer probably did want to be on the news, and, sure, by putting him on the news, journalists are giving him “what he wanted.” But it seems clear to me that what Chris Harper Mercer mostly wanted was guns he could use to execute lots of people. He got them. We already gave him what he wanted. Mass shootings in America will never slow or cease until journalists recognize and report on their cause. Because causation is knowable here. And it has nothing to do with a shooter’s vague desire to be on CNN.
I don’t think people are worried that naming the shooter is going to create another mass shooting down the road. Part of me believes that the reason we don’t want to focus on the mass shooter’s name is that we don’t want to uncover questions we don’t want to answer. Maybe we don’t want to talk about guns. Maybe we don’t want to talk about the lack of mental health care. Maybe we don’t want to talk about racism and bigotry, which is a major cause of the Christchurch shooting. Not naming someone, not showing their picture keeps those unsettling questions at bay and it keeps the press from poking around.
But there are good reasons we need to learn about the killer. For example, in the days following the Parkland, Florida shooting, we learned that shooter was troubled and displayed a number of red flags that people ignored. This has led to red flag laws to be considered across the country. But if we didn’t know the name of the shooter, if we ignored the event, then we would not learn how warnings signs were missed. We learned in the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs shooting, we learned that a law that would have kept firearms away from the shooter wasn’t enforced. The questions we need to ask in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting center around Islamophobia and bigotry. Where did he get the idea? How was he radicalized? How was he able to acquire the weapons, especially since Australia and New Zealand has stricter gun laws than here in the United States?
These are questions that need to be asked and to do that, you have to at times name the shooter.
I can understand the disgust one feels in naming this man’s name. But the role of the journalist in our society is to ask uncomfortable questions.
None of this means that we have to give out the shooter’s name 24/7. There are times news agencies don’t have to give the name.
But there are times that you have to name names. We need to do this because there are questions that need to be asked in the hope that we can learn from what went wrong and prevent other shootings. To ignore events like this, does far more harm than good.