Sunday, October 4, 2015

Let's Refuse to Give Mass Murderers the Publicity They Crave

John Hanlin is the sheriff of Douglas County, Oregon, where last Thursday's mass murder of at least nine people took place. He took an extraordinary stance after the killings:
Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter. I will not give him credit for this horrific act.... [I encourage the media to] "avoid using [the shooter's name], repeating it, or engaging in any glorification and sensationalizing of him. ... He in no way deserves it. Focus your attention on the victims and their families and helping them to recover.
Hanlin is surely right--and not only as a matter of what the shooter and his victims deserve. It's also a matter of deterring future such acts. As Doug Saunders ("Lone Wolf" - The Globe and Mail, Oct. 25, 2014) and various others have pointed out, sensational acts of violence are often in large part motivated by a hope on the part of a mentally deranged person that the violent act will make him (it is almost always a him) famous. The Oregon shooter was quite explicit about this. In the message he left for the world before committing his heinous act he commented on the perpetrator of the recent TV station murders in Virginia:
I have noticed that people like him are all alone and unknown,, yet when they spill a little blood, , the whole world knows who they are. ... Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.
And we play right along. After reporting on Friday morning the sheriff's plea not to name the shooter, NPR named the shooter. In the front page article quoting the shooter's comments about killing people to get "in the limelight," The New York Times published his name and picture.

From the assassinations of a long line of politicians, to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, to the Columbine High School killings, to the Utøya island mass murder in Norway in 2011, and through to the events in Oregon last week, we keep splashing the names and photos of the killers across our front pages and our television screens. Why can we not simply say, “The killer, whose name cannot be revealed, was a 26-year old Caucasian with a history of instability and an avowed dislike of organized religion." No name, no photo, and no chance of becoming famous through committing deranged acts of violence. If news organizations feel they have a responsibility to dig deeper, fine. But do so without revealing the name, without publishing the picture. Surely that's not too much to ask.

Our laws already recognize one important circumstance (youthful offenders) that we regard as providing sufficient justification to trump freedom-of-speech principles when it comes to revealing names; it’s time to add another.

But even if legislators can't manage to change the laws governing media coverage, the media themselves can start to behave responsibly--act in the way that Sheriff John Hanlin recommends, not in the way that the mass murderers are counting on.

[NB Part of the above also appeared in "Remaining Nameless," which was posted in this blog following last October's attack on the Canadian parliament.]

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