Shooters’ thirst for fame should fail

Russell Wangersky
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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

Organizations: Batman theater

Geographic location: Connecticut, Oregon, Columbine Vancouver

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Recent comments

  • grisha
    December 19, 2012 - 15:21

    While Fintip is eloquent and well reasoned as usual I differ with his conclusion on the wisdom and effectiveness of more gun control laws. It is understandable that our neighbors to the north may not have the familiarity with our laws as we ourselves do. Gun ownership and possession is not so easy as some are lead to believe by our incompetent and highly prejudiced media, even in Texas where I reside. There are laws on top of laws about guns, violence, etc. The Newtown killer broke at least four laws before he shot at the first of his victims. Reading some of Russell's editorials evidences to me that your own elected officials and public servants are as comedic, self-absorbed and ineffective as ours. This results in a more cynical and rejecting attitude towards just piling on more laws among many of us, me included. What the guns used by the Newtown have to do with any owned by anyone I know and me is anybody's guess. Only the twisted logic of many of our liberal leaners can make that connection. The real issue is the failure of civil servants to enforce what laws currenty exist. In our neck of the woods we believe , or at least some of us still do, in our founding fathers' warnings regarding governmental power and excesses. Our sort of system will not provide a perfect environment and there will always be criminals, mental cases, sociopaths and weirdos who cannot conform. There is always a trade off and some of us, probably less and less all the time, prefer the freedom from governmental domination and tyranny to intrusive, despotic, oppressive and inept government. Pick your poison.

  • t
    December 19, 2012 - 13:20

    I agree with you. I don't want or need to know his name, or anything else about him. The only time I want to know about someone like this is if there is a current danger to be aware of.

  • FiNTIP
    December 18, 2012 - 23:24

    It's not that I disagree with Wangersky's main premise regarding the role of notoriety in the commission of mass murder. But in these very early days I think it presumptive to say that it is relevant to the actions of this particular assailant. There is no evidence yet that he was motivated by fame or that, absent the prospect of fame, he would have acted any differently. There was no psychopathic rant or manifesto splashed across the internet - not even a suicide note. We know he had Aspergers which in and of itself does not predispose to violence. But it is a risk for bullying, social exclusion and marginalization which in turn can breed psychoses and, occasionally, rage. Whatever its source, transient rage seldom manifests itself in violence - let alone mass murder. Even where the motivation might rise to murder, it requires means and opportunity. Enter a well-intentioned if hopelessly ignorant parent who sought to bolster her son's self-esteem by immersing him in America's pervasive gun culture. She unwittingly supplied and trained a severely disturbed individual with an array of lethal weapons including the semi-automatic assault rifle that would end her life and the lives of six other adults and twenty small children. As the NRA is fond of saying 'guns don't kill people, people kill people'. But guns make it so much easier. Ready access to a Bushmaster .223 capable of firing 45 rounds per minute renders the killing process chillingly efficient. In response to the ensuing outrage and grief, WalMart pulled the deadly Bushmaster from its shelves - no doubt with the prospect of quietly returning it when all the commotion dies down. Gun control has suddenly overtaken Christmas and the fiscal cliff as the topic-du-jour across America. Lawmakers are falling over themselves to support new gun control measures. But to paraphrase that great gun advocate in the sky - Charlton Heston, government will pry these weapons of mass destruction from the hands of America's 'gunsters' over the cold dead body of the NRA. And while Canada's gun culture pales in comparison, the Harper government has moved steadily to dismantle the laws that would preserve that distinction. It is less than a year since Harper dismantled Canada's long gun registry but already Toronto's chief of police is citing its absence as the cause of a 40% drop in the number of guns confiscated in that city. As horrific a shock to America's psyche Sandy Hook might be, it remains to be seen whether it will rise to the threshold needed to defeat those who have long stood in the way of gun control and of badly needed reforms in the mental health industry.

  • Colin Burke
    December 18, 2012 - 13:47

    I have read -- I believe it was in Chronicles magazine -- that in the United States firearms have been used to prevent crimes far more often than to commit crimes. My own objection to the use of firearms is grounded in the fact that "guns do kill" in a sense in which swords and clubs could not: that shooting with a firearm is not so much a deed one does as it is "only" an event which one invites to occur. That purely personal objection applies as much in principle to police having firearms as to homicidal maniacs having them. I seem to have heard or read that the inicidence of suicide among the police is higher than it is among the population generally; if that is true, it might tend to counter the contention (which I heard from an RCMP staff sergeant) that keeping guns away from the ordinary citizen would do much to prevent suicides. (I have not heard or read what method of suicide police prefer who commit suicide.)

  • McLovin
    December 18, 2012 - 12:54

    I agree with you Mr. Wangersky but I think you've left out the most important fact in all of this. The business of selling the news is more important than reporting what matters in the news. The Telegram essentially does the same thing, otherwise they would post everything online for free. I am not saying that the Telegram is wrong by doing this. You have to pay the bills somehow and unfortunately people don't want to read about 12 year old Hanna Smith. They want to know why this idiot did what he did and they are willing to pay more to get this information than they would to read about the victims.

  • Throw away your television
    December 18, 2012 - 11:19

    Yes this is correct, the children in China were stabbed and so far none have been reported dead. My mistake. I would argue however that a sharpened katana in skilled hands can be just as deadly or deadlier than an assault rifle. I don't believe assaults weapons should be banned with the logic that it will prevent another columbine, or sandy hook or virginia tech etc. Norway's got some pretty tight gun control laws and that other lunatic still managed to kill a bunch of people. there. Massacres are not the rule in the US, they are the exception. Most gun-related deaths are a direct result of the continuing drug war and racial pressures on young black and latino Americans.

  • Brenda
    December 18, 2012 - 11:04

    Good point, Majhuul. I guess Throw Away forgot to mention that bit. I heard about it on CBC radio -- hardly a conspiracy of silence.

  • grisha
    December 18, 2012 - 10:18

    From reading your columns for a while I have noticed a marked tendency on your part which you share with other what we call "liberals" being to judge or measure the actions, thoughts, life styles, interests and preferences of others by your own. You condemn the tastes of others that do not coincide with your own and praise those that do. I do not personally have thousands of rounds of ammunition stored in my house but I have enough, probably more than most as I have the equipment to reload spend metalic cartridges. It just happens to be something I enjoy doing like someone else might like, God forbid, golf. That is one sport that I see no redeaming virtue in, even though my ancestors invented the game. However, I do understand that someone else might enjoy it and am glad for them to have the opportunity to pursue it. I have no interest in what some folks call "assault rifles" except for a couple of old WWII era bolt action Mausers I own. But, there are thousands upon thousands of law abiding people which do have that interest. The bazillions of such folks piled up on the exceedingly few wierdos is overwhelming if you will take the time to examine the facts and stats. That should tell you something. But, it probably won't. When I hear about someone with "assault rifles" or ammunition stock piles who is law abiding or a ma jonh player or whatever I am happy that they can pursue their activities and engage in , as we say here, "the pursuit of happiness" without condesention from me. You should give that a "shot".

  • Majhuul
    December 18, 2012 - 10:08

    Regarding the Chinese incident, please note that 22 children were injured - not killed. Had the person with the knife had access to a gun, the result would likely have been much worse.

  • Tuning out
    December 18, 2012 - 10:04

    Thank you for this Mr. Wangersky, this needed to be said. If all media outlets and editors were of the same mind, I strongly believe there would be a lot less of these types of despicable events occurring.

  • J. Paul Walsh
    December 18, 2012 - 09:43

    An excellent column sir. Anyone in your profession who would disagree with you should look in a mirror and check their motives. Are they reporting or being an accomplice? As for gun control it has to happen in the United States. I support a hunter's right to have a weapon, but the idea of someone thinking they have the right to own military-style weapons that are intended only to kill people is sickening and uncivilized. I am not sure how people who support free access to firearms can live with themselves. It's selfish, barabarian and unacceptable.

  • Herb Morrison
    December 18, 2012 - 08:21

    Well said, Mr. Roe. The term "media Circus" has been used in the past to describe how the mass media reacts when such events occur. Can only imagine what it must be like to be required to mourn the loss of a loved one in the glare of the media spotlight

  • Max Roe
    December 18, 2012 - 08:01

    Mr. Wangersky: I completely agree. I am an avid follower of current events, but I tuned-out completely after the "event" in the movie theater. As for my "right to know", the media's usual rationalization for reporting these horrific events, I only need to know that the shooter was arrested or killed and convicted or buried. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, many of whom were only 6 years old. I will use the words of A. A. Milne because I have none: NOW WE ARE SIX (A. A. Milne) When I was one I had just begun When I was two I was nearly new When I was three I was hardly me When I was four I was not much more When I was five I was just alive But now I am six I'm as clever as clever So I think I'll be six Now and forever.. Max

  • Herb Morrison
    December 18, 2012 - 07:28

    There is a decided difference between being famous and being notorious. Effective piece of writing, Mr Wangersky.

  • Throw away your television
    December 18, 2012 - 07:07

    I agree completely with this column except for the last part. On friday, a chinese man walked into a school and stabbed 22 children (of course we didn't hear about it in the west) but China has some pretty tight gun-control laws for the average joe. Much tigher than they are here and some lunatic decided to stab a bunch of kids. Gun control ain't gonna help. The only thing that will help is knowing how to survive in such a situation or being trained to neutralize the threat. The last thing we should be doing is burning all of our guns because of (relatively) rare scenarios such as a mass shooting, as tragic as they tend to be. Recently, our Israeli allies killed almost 50 kids and wounded several hundred more in a week long "war" on Gaza last month and the western media didn't condemn israel for using white phosphorous or airstrikes in civilian areas. Nah, we went on about nonsense to it's right to self-defence and how hamas are terrorists. We pick and choose tragedies based on what we're fed by the media and perhaps that's not good either. Especially not when we're being led to reactionary thoughts and conclusions based on a cherry-picked massacre while ignoring war crimes committed by various NATO members. How are the children in Gaza or China any less important than the kids in America? Why do we always hop on this sensationalist bandwagon when something happens on the mainland but turn our heads from families full of kids getting wiped out with a single F-16 strike?