The one who shall not be named: An effort to keep the focus off mass shooters in media coverage and three reasons why it might not matter

An interesting article published this week in The Fourth Estate looks at the issue of how law enforcement and media have sought to keep mass shooters’ names out of the public eye:

Supporters of not naming perpetrators make the case that the less written, spoken or known about the perpetrators, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous from such horrific acts. Whether this trend of reducing the naming of mass shooters helps reduce mass shootings or perhaps makes them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Lax gun laws in the U.S. and the lack of mental health services are two of the most discussed reasons. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet clear how much notoriety is a factor for potential shooters. But we do know that the news media is heeding the call to limit naming perpetrators in mass shootings.

Thomas J. Hrach,  an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis explained this as part of a larger review of his research into the naming of shooters in these cases. While his research has several caveats, he does point out that the media’s naming people who have committed these acts has decreased significantly over the years.

Organizations like “Don’t Name Them” and “No Notoriety” have long pushed for media outlets to limit the name usage associated with mass killers. These and other groups have stated that the naming of these shooters leads to copycat crimes, increased intentions to act among potential shooters and the diminished attention that should be paid to victims.

Research has indicated a “contagion effect” can occur in incidents like these, although Hrach’s study noted that naming the shooter or the volume of coverage has yet to be directly linked to increased incidents. In other words, we don’t entirely know what drives people to do this, but we at least examining to what degree media coverage impacts these situations.

In working through my mass-shooting series a few years back, I’d read a lot of various opinions on these issues and found no real consensus on how best to cover something like this. I also came up with three confounding variables that might make all of this “to name or not to name” discussion moot:

TRENDS OF MASS SHOOTINGS: Trying to come up with a standard for what counts as a “mass shooting” or a “shooting spree” or a “mass killer” makes data almost useless in some cases. That said, whenever an organization applies some base-level look at shooting deaths that occur in bunches to a series of incidents, one thing is clear: we’ve trended up over the past 40-some years.

Mother Jones did one that lists the mass shootings from 1982 to present and we can see that we are getting more mass shootings in the more recent end of the spectrum than we have in the beginning end of the spectrum. What is strange is the degree to which each case gained notoriety, leaving open the possibility of media coverage being a contributing factor.

For example, the Columbine shooting is often part of the larger discussion because it involved two high school students killing their classmates. However, the Mother Jones database lists a similar high school shooting in Springfield, Oregon less than a year earlier. The Sandy Hook shooter’s name and face are burned into the fabric of society while the two shooters in Jonesboro, Arkansas lack that level of fame.

For me, the strange thing is that the increase of shootings has almost made it impossible for me to remember names and incidents, an admission of which I am quite ashamed. I do remember certain names because they involved incidents that hit so close to home: The Sikh temple in my home state, the Virginia Tech situation, the Northern Illinois situation and the Columbine shooting, in part due to a friend’s connection to the area. The others have become nameless.

If Hrach’s research is on the right track, this might be because the media isn’t beating us over the heads with the names as much anymore. Or, it just might be that it’s harder to keep track of every one of these incidents, as they’ve become disturbingly more common than they used to be.

NOT EVERY MEDIA OUTLET PLAYS BY THE SAME RULES: The famous, perhaps apocryphal, story about Babe Ruth bears repeating here. On a train to an away game, a group of reporters is playing cards when a naked Babe Ruth comes running through the train car being chased by a semi-nude woman with a knife. The senior scribe pauses before saying, “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we didn’t just see what we saw.” The story went unreported in the papers and didn’t emerge until years later.

The point is that we don’t have such a limited set of “gates” on information anymore that are ruled by a few gatekeepers. Pretty much any ham-head with a phone and social media account can publish anything at any point. Sure, it’s great if the New York Times and the Washington Post and CNN enter into that “gentlemen’s agreement” not to name a shooter, or to limit the identification of that person to X number of times, but that doesn’t matter anymore.

Websites, online broadcasters and social media operations can decide to run or not run whatever they want, with many not having the same level of journalistic training and education as some of the more traditional or established outlets. In many cases, fringe outlets delight in publishing things that these storied legacy media don’t or wouldn’t put out there. And, really, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

PEOPLE ARE NOSY: Humans have an innate curiosity about things that happen around them. When given limited information on a topic, there is a high probability that people will go nose around to find out what they’re missing.

It can be on simple things like when someone says, “I need to tell you three things…” and then only talks about two of them. In my own mind, I’m usually ignoring whatever the heck the second thing is if the conversation about it gets too long because I’m thinking, “OK, what’s the third thing?” It drives me bonkers when a sports announcer says something like, “Jose Ramirez has just become the fourth player in Cleveland history to (DO SOMETHING),” and the announcer doesn’t tell me who were the other three.

It’s also why game shows like “Let’s Make a Deal” were so successful: People were torn between what they knew they had in their hand and whatever mystery was behind Door Number Two.

When it comes to terrible situations like mass shootings, those curiosities emerge as well. I was watching a documentary about a 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s Massacre, an event I’d never heard of before. Throughout the documentary, the participants never named the shooter. About half way through, the documentarian noted that he refused to name this person because he wanted to focus on the victims. As much as every element of this film was spellbinding, once it was over, I found myself Googling this event to find out who this guy was and what his problem was.

Withholding information can lead to more interest in a situation than simply laying out everything for the audience. It’s why we preach transparency in public relations as, to quote Ivy Lee, it’s better to “tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

I’m sure there’s a balance between pounding the audience over the head with the names of these people and making sure not to tempt the curious. I’m also sure I don’t know where that is, so it might be a while before we figure it out.


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