Active shooters in schools: Diminishing the names of the killers
It's unreasonable to expect the media to totally anonymize killers like the monster who unleashed hell at Sandy Hook, but we must devalue them in our coverage
After an Ohio State University police officer shot a suspected terrorist the question arose of whether agencies should name officers who have fatally shot — or even simply apprehended — a terrorist who has carried out an attack on American soil.
I concluded that given the public's increasing demand for instant information from the news media, the reality is that officers’ names are likely to be discovered one way or another — and probably pretty quickly in many cases. I argued that protecting the officers themselves — not the officers’ names — should be the priority.
The notion of agencies — and subsequently, the media — declining to release the names of active killers is important to explore and understand. Don’t Name Them, a coordinated effort conducted by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University, the I Love U Guys Foundation, and the FBI is spearheading the effort to deny active killers notoriety.
Since the date of this posting — Dec. 14 — is the anniversary of the tragic killings of 20 children and six adult staff members in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the topic of over-publicizing the names of murderous monsters merits our attention in this space.
Naming them, but not sensationalizing them
The Don’t Name Them website states that “some shooters are motivated by a desire for fame, notoriety, and/or recognition” and that “when the media focuses on the shooter, they provide this fame, notoriety and recognition.”
While it is reasonable to conclude that widespread media coverage can create a contagion effect, the ultimate blame for this phenomenon cannot be laid solely at the feet of the media.
The fact is, the news consumer — the American public — creates an enormous demand for information about the killer in all murders, and even more so in the case of rapid mass murder. This demand is virtually impossible for the news media to resist.
Most news distributors are for-profit enterprises, and if a particular type of story didn’t sell, they would simply discontinue running that sort of thing. But evidence shows that citizens want to know every salacious detail of these monsters’ lives. Sensational news generates more web traffic, higher TV and radio ratings and increased print publication sales. If the demand weren’t there, the supply would go away.
Withholding the name of a person who commits a rapid mass murder would be ideal, but even the folks at Don’t Name Them recognize that this is impossible.
“It is journalistically routine to name the killer,” their website says. “It’s public record. And it is important to use their names and likenesses to apprehend them and bring them to justice. But once they are captured, it’s really no longer a part of the story, other than to create a call to action for a like-minded killer to take his plans and thoughts and make them into deeds.”
I totally agree with Don’t Name Them that it is imprudent to sensationalize these murderers with prolonged mention and deep-dives into their lives, their psyches, and the like. In fact, to every extent possible, we must try to diminish and devalue them in our coverage — which is precisely what we do in PoliceOne original coverage.
As a person responsible for disseminating news and information to American law enforcement, I am required to report the name of the offender whenever it is known, no matter what the crime. To not do so would be willful negligence as a journalist. However, I use the name only once in any given article and for all subsequent mentions I use words like assailant, gunman, attacker, or — when appropriate — terrorist.
According to the final report summarizing the investigation into the Newtown massacre, investigators had discovered that the assailant had “an obsession with mass murders, in particular the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.”
The killers at Columbine had been so widely publicized for so long (years, in fact) that even ordinary citizens knew those names more than a decade and a half after the tragedy. That kind of media-fueled fame is unacceptable. Going forward, every effort should be made — as has been suggested by Don’t Name Them — that we “focus less on the suspects and more on the victims.”
In the case of PoliceOne, we do our level best to make our primary focus the officers who respond to these awful events, then the victims and lastly the killer.
In the aftermath of active killer incidents, we at PoliceOne focus on important law enforcement topics such Dan Marcou’s Five Phases of the Active Shooter, as well as suggesting tactical and strategic solutions to the active killer phenomenon for cops and citizens alike. We do not focus on the gunman.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast
Four years ago today, the entire PoliceOne newsroom was in shock, but my colleagues and I had to fulfill our duty to report known facts to the readers. This brings me to a major mea culpa: We were among the myriad news outlets that initially named an innocent man as the killer. We got out in front of our skis and that’s just as unacceptable as placing undue attention on the murder for months and years.
We were reminded — the hard way — that as is often the case, the first reports are almost always faulted and can be factually incorrect. Instead of properly identifying the shooter, CNN initially misreported that the atrocity had been committed by the killer’s brother — an individual who at the time of the horrific events in Newtown was 75 miles away at his desk in mid-town Manhattan. We took the bait and ran the name.
Lesson learned: fast and wrong may be fast, but it’s also still wrong. It is for this reason that I believe we are best served by not reporting any names until we have solid verification and from that point forward, using names only for the first mention in any original article — and thereafter using the abovementioned descriptive pronouns in lieu of the killer’s given or family name.
Be the change you want to see in the world
Sherry Towers — a physicist at Arizona State University has studied the contagion effect of mass shootings — correctly points out on the Don’t Name Them website that “we cannot legislate restrictions on the press to avoid” the release of the names of mass killers — that the media must choose to withhold those names.
This brings us right back to the public demand for scandalous and shocking news stories, and the media’s somewhat understandable willingness to cash in on this stuff. In this day and age of an instant-gratification need for information on the part of the news media and the public, it is an impractical proposal that the killers’ names are simply buried and never uttered.
But we can all do a better job of shifting the focus and refraining from sensationalism.
I cannot control what the folks in consumer news outlets like CNN and the New York Times do about this, but as far as my own reporting and commentary on PoliceOne are concerned, the above policy of “one mention only” has been the SOP for a long time — dating back to my very first piece on Sandy Hook.
In fact, in that column, authored with tears in my eyes on Dec. 14, 2012, I didn’t use the killer’s name at all — instead calling him a “20-year-old asshole whose name merits no mention in this space.”
On this solemn anniversary of the senseless slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the murderer’s name again has been omitted entirely from this text.
Instead, we honor and remember the names and the lives of those who were murdered on that terrible day four years ago.
Anne Marie Murphy
May you all rest in peace.