Critical Thinking: Should Media Withhold The Names Of Accused Killers In An Effort To Curb Future Violence?

By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking: Should Media Withhold The Names Of Accused Killers In An Effort To Curb Future Violence?

Q: In light of the spate of mass shootings in America, do you think media organizations should withhold the name and photo of the accused killer in an effort to curb future violence?

Gianna Cruet, 21, senior, University of Nevada, Reno
Cruet is a journalism major and current opinion editor of student newspaper The Nevada Sagebrush. She studied abroad in San Sebastian, Spain, in 2011 and interned as a news reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal last summer.

A: The United States faces several dilemmas in its efforts to halt the growing number of deadly shootings. Is it our treatment of mentally ill people that contributes to these disasters? Are gun laws strict enough, or should guns be easier to obtain so that victims in these situations can defend themselves? All are pertinent questions, and all are difficult to answer.

The question of whether the media should or should not publish essential information about killers, however, should not be a debate. I understand why people may think it is. People who, like Adam Lanza, are on the precipice of insanity, may decide that similar actions would get them attention. Maybe ensuring that Lanza doesn’t get any coverage in the press would discourage potential killers.

But that solution is too simple, and its consequences are problematic. Not only do people need information, but they need to know the “why.” When news of the shooting broke, I sat at my laptop refreshing every couple of minutes. All the while I was wondering why anyone would walk into an elementary school and kill children. If the media didn’t publish Lanza’s name or photo, they couldn’t publish information about him either, but people would still figure out who he was. I believe the families and loved ones of the victims would need to know the identity of the killer. That helps them move past their grief and, maybe, they can try to understand why he did what he did. Maybe they never would. Either way, Lanza existing as a John Doe with no photo to his name would make that impossible.

The recent shootings are not flukes, and something needs to be done about them. Restricting the media will not do that job.

Brett Fera, 30, managing editor, East Valley (Tempe, Ariz.) Tribune
Fera returned to the Tribune (where his career began) in 2011 as Web editor and became managing editor in January 2013. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communication, and an MBA from the University of Arizona. He is a faculty associate with Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication.

For the sake of public interest — the “greater good” — or rather to satisfy the public’s interest?

While the verbiage might be similar, the context is anything but. The combination of a voyeuristic society and the fight for television ratings, single-copy sales, and pageviews is undoubtedly a dangerous proposition.

The possibility of further mass violence is always present, and media outlets must be cognizant that showcasing the suspect once and again has an impact (Counterpoint: A recent Associated Press report quotes experts as saying, “There is no pattern, there is no increase,” in mass shootings).

As part of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a “national conversation” took place over the principles that underlie journalism. PEJ leaders Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach developed “The Elements of Journalism” as a result, and among those elements are a commitment to truth, loyalty to citizens, coverage that’s comprehensive and proportional, the exercise of personal conscience, and a discipline of verification.

It’s easy to highlight scenarios where outlets have failed in practicing one or more of these elements. Every organization is unique and must pass its own independent litmus test to determine if its methods are prudent. Local newspapers covering Newtown, Aurora, or Northwest Tucson likely owe it to their constituents — those directly connected to the event itself — to display the entire story, uncomfortable as it may be. Still, ratings be damned, a national television network has a less compelling argument to run a headshot for hours straight.

In any case, a simple “yes” or “no” isn’t enough, and that’s a good thing. Thought and continued conversation are imperative to champion worthwhile answers. No, media outlets should not completely withhold the name and photo of the accused, but, yes (unequivocally), coverage must be presented with restraint and respect — something seemingly missing of late.

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One thought on “Critical Thinking: Should Media Withhold The Names Of Accused Killers In An Effort To Curb Future Violence?

  • February 18, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    From a purely cold, objective standpoint, publishing in print, online or on the air the name and information about an accused killer is our job – it is what we do. In 2013, those who are social network-savvy have many, many ways of learning this information. People no longer have to rely on the “established press” for their news and information. However, most people still rely on us for ACCURATE information. That places a responsibility on us in the established media to share with readers what we know, as accurately as we can, and as quickly as we can. If an “accused” killer is charged by police with the crime, all that information is public record and available for all to see. It would be negligent of us to withhold it. I also can imagine many people wondering “what is thw media trying to hide?” by not releasing the person’s name. If the accused dies in the incident, I agree that it is even more important to get information – accurate information – out to the public quickly to begin explaining the “why” such a horrible act could occur and what would lead the person to commit such a crime. Each time we explain the possible reasons for such a tragedy, I would hope that explaination serves to educate and help prevent such an act in the future.


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