THE PUSH TO NOT NAME MASS SHOOTERS IS GROWING
After a gunman in West Texas killed seven and wounded 22 others before being killed by law enforcement on August 31, 2019, Odessa’s police chief Michael Gerke stated in a press conference, “You will notice I am not naming the subject. I refuse to. I am not going to give him any notoriety for what he did.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz also called for the media to not name the shooter. “These murderers crave notoriety, but they deserve to be forgotten. Instead, we should celebrate the victims, the first responders & the heroes,” Cruz added.
The call to not name mass shooters in the media, while gaining traction, is not new. It is a movement that started after the 2012 Aurora, CO movie theater shooting. Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex was one of the 12 people murdered during a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie, founded the campaign No Notoriety, calling for a limited use (not a complete blackout) of the names and images of the perpetrators. Since then, the campaign has been gaining momentum, with heavy hitters like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Denver’s 9News adopting the protocol. More recently, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to say the name of the gunman who killed 50 and wounded dozens more at a mosque in Christchurch.
While not naming mass shooters may seem, at least on the surface, to be a moral or ethical decision, the reality is that it has become a practical one. Perpetrators of these heinous attacks are telling us that they are committing these acts in such a public manner in order to gain fame and notoriety. The Parkland shooter, for example, stated in his video made before going into the school that the body count he planned to amass was going to put him on the news and make him a household name. The shooter at a mall in Omaha, NE in 2007 noted that he was going to be famous in his suicide notes left behind. Even 20 years ago, the Columbine perpetrators had predicted the media frenzy that would surround their attack, musing whether it would be Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino who would ultimately tell their story. Therefore, removing their identity from the coverage of the story serves to remove the rewards the killers seek to receive.
At the same time, limiting the attention given to the perpetrators of mass shootings also can serve to limit the incentives for other like-minded individuals. A number of research studies, including one by Sherry Towers and colleagues, have found that mass shootings are contagious events, such that the occurrence of one – coupled with the media coverage it receives – can lead to an increase in copycat attacks in the first two weeks following. One study after the Parkland shooting found that threats of similar violence in schools increased 300% in the 30 days after the shooting, with the majority of incidents captured in the first two weeks after the attack. These same two weeks also is when the coverage of such events typically is the highest. Even 20 years later, perpetrators who were not even born when Columbine happened are referencing the two attackers due to the infamy they received (and continue to receive). Thus, by highlighting mass shootings perpetrators, it signals to like-minded individuals – many of whom study previous attackers – that if they commit similar acts of violence, they too will receive comparable media attention.
Two common pushbacks to not naming the shooters centers on the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and of the press, as well as the public’s right to know. Regarding the First Amendment, it is not the position of myself or other advocates to limit the media in covering these events. Instead, we simply call for a more responsible form of reporting that seeks to deny these killers the attention and fame they crave and refocus the conversation on the victims, survivors, and heroes. Too often, these legacies fall by the wayside and the true loss of these crimes are never realized.
As for the public’s right to know, since most people will never directly be impacted by a mass shooting, the media bear the responsibility of providing the necessary information through which to better understand these events. So how can they meet this demand in a way that does not give notoriety to the killer? By limiting the incorporation of the name and image of the shooter, it is subsequently removing the identity and personalization that is the gateway to fame-seeking behavior. Simply referring to them as “the perpetrator,” a banal term at best, still allows the media to report on the “who” and possibly the “why” (along with the “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how”) without glorifying them. Getting their name “in lights” is a goal for these perpetrators so removing that option could be an important first step in helping to reduce these events’ occurrences.
My colleague Adam Lankford has found that the amount of coverage dedicated to mass shooters equates to advertising revenue that exceeds many high profile athletes and celebrities. There are undoubtedly important lessons to be gleaned from these events, but they should not come at the price of free promotion. The reporting of mass shootings must change if for no other reason than the fact that the current coverage schemes are (inadvertently) helping to promote future attacks. The time for the change is now – lives literally are depending on it.
Jaclyn Schildkraut is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and a nationally- and internationally-recognized expert on school and mass shootings. She is the author of several books, including Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond: Lessons from Tragedy (with Glenn Muschert), as well as numerous research articles and briefs. Jaclyn serves on the advisory board of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies and also regularly consults with school districts on safety practices and protocols, including for lockdown scenarios. She is a former resident of the Parkland and Orlando communities that each have experienced their own mass shooting.