I’m sure this won’t be a popular column among journalists who believe the right to know trumps responsibility for the damage some of that knowledge can do.
But here goes.
Five years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a column that ended like this: “If the motive for shooting as many people as you possibly can is to develop some measure of fame, well, we can doing something about that as well. You can only be famous if people know your name.
“Right now, the news media is making a huge deal about a teenager from Omaha, about his name and his life, about his dropping out of school and being thrown out of the family home. We’re hearing much less about the innocent people who were killed — about their families, jobs and lives. That alone is a huge imbalance.
“You may have noticed by now that there’s not one single name in this column, not even the name of the teenager who shot up a Christmas shopping mall because he wanted to be famous. It’s not here, even though that name is readily available. Every time we glorify a shooter’s name, we’re priming the pump for another one.”
I wrote that column after a 19-year-old killed nine people in an Omaha shopping mall.
He left a suicide note, part of which read like this: “Now I’ll be famous.”
There are plenty of reasons for the media to report on mass shootings, if for no other reason than because the root causes deserve our attention. If we learn something from the psychiatric pathology of a mass murderer, maybe we can do something to stop future killers.
We want to know why such things happen and where mass murderers come from. And there’s no reason to stop reporting that.
But here’s a snippet that was originally credited to outspoken actor Morgan Freeman, but was later shown to have come from an Internet comment poster who said, “If I know the Internet, someone will attribute the quote to Morgan Freeman or Betty White and it’ll go viral.” It was posted after the most recent — and most horrible — elementary school shooting in Connecticut.
“You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here’s why. It’s because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single victim of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he’ll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.”
Regardless of who the author was — apparently “Mark from Vancouver” — I agree with the sentiment.
Because we are giving shooters the notoriety they want and we’re doing it for no good reason.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Frank Smith or Tony Jones — there’s absolutely no reason to keep identifying them.
Now, media outlets do have to find a way to identify individual cases somehow.
Perhaps we could use the names of the victims instead — “The man who shot 12-year-old Hanna Smith and four others was a…” — and the names of the perpetrators can end up where they deserve.
In the garbage.
I wish the media could get its act together and come up with a clear agreement to stop naming shooters and plastering their photos everywhere.
Sure, some media outlets would probably still break with their fellows and announce the “scoop” — giving a mass murderer just exactly what he wanted (and they’re almost all “he”s).
And don’t get me started on why anyone in any civilized country in this century would argue for the right or the need for the home storage of semi-automatic weapons, large magazines and huge stockpiles of ammunition.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.