Business of News: Why the Press Should Stop Giving Mass Shooters Publicity

Alex Teves was born in suburban New Jersey, moved to Phoenix as a youngster, earned his master’s degree in Denver and was shot to death in a movie theater in 2012 in Aurora, Colo., while shielding his girlfriend from a man on a killing spree.

About 20 miles away and 13 years earlier, two killers entered a high school armed with automatic weapons and a bomb. They killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves. This month, we will recognize the 20th anniversary since the Columbine High School shootings, and Alex’s parents have a simple request for us in the news media: Stop naming the killers.

Stop naming all the killers in these mass shootings. Stop giving them the publicity they want. Stop making them famous.

Focus instead on those who were killed, the wounded and the heroes. Repeat their names. Tell their stories. Put the attention on those whose lives were taken, not those who took the lives. After Alex’s death, Caren and Tom Teves helped organize a movement called No Notoriety. They understand that news media must report the name of the shooter in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. They also understand that reporters will try to answer the question of why he did it.

But after those initial days, they want the news media to stop repeating the names of the shooters in every story. Focus instead on those who were killed. Put attention on the innocent and not on the guilty.

They point to a number of academic studies, as well as growing anecdotal evidence, showing the killers crave the attention they know they will receive for carrying out these horrific acts. Blow away a bunch of people and you’ve written your name in infamy, these killers believe. But if the newspapers quit printing their names, if the cable television stations quit plastering their photos 24/7, they believe they’ve taken away one of the reasons these shooters carry out their attacks. (In a much less serious comparison, Tom Teves noted in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that when TV stations quit broadcasting the idiots who ran on the field during a sporting event, the number of these incidents plummeted.)

The Teves were in Hawaii when their son was murdered, and it took them almost two days to get to Colorado because of difficult flight connections. Everywhere they went on their journey they saw their son’s killer’s name and photo. On the TV news. In the newspaper. The names and photos of the victims appeared far less frequently.

Caren Teves is not naïve. Taking away notoriety is only one step that has to be taken to halt these mass shootings. No Notoriety is well aware that easy access to firearms and the nation’s inadequate mental health system play a major role as well. “Why not focus on the ‘why’ and not on the ‘who’?” she asks.

There is some evidence that in the latest mass shooting—at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand—that many media outlets did restrain themselves from giving the shooter and his manifesto the publicity that he sought.

These attacks have not stopped since No Notoriety began, of course. And some in the media—notably USA Today—rejected No Notoriety’s call. Editors gave the standard “Where does this stop?” response when writing their editorial. It’s a canned response, but one that is familiar in journalism where principles often smother empathy.

But let me tell you what I have noted here in Southern California. Last November, I woke one morning to that dreaded news alert that said a dozen people had been killed in a nightclub shooting in “the Los Angeles area.” Within a few minutes, I learned that the club was in Thousand Oaks, less than 10 miles from my home. The gunman killed 11 people that night. Sgt. Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office bravely entered the Borderline Bar and Grill to stop him and was killed by friendly fire.

In the months since the Borderline shooting, I have noticed a clear distinction in the local coverage. There are dozens of articles about those who died, along with memorials to them and fundraisers for them. Aside from the first few days of stories focused on “Who was the shooter?” and “Why did he do this?” his notoriety is over. You have to do a Google search for his name because it’s just not that well-known. But everyone knows Sgt. Ron Helus.   

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from the print version to include the Christchurch mosque shootings.

 

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]

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5 thoughts on “Business of News: Why the Press Should Stop Giving Mass Shooters Publicity

  • April 16, 2019 at 7:27 am
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    Stop giving mass shooters publicity should be a god-tier for all journalists and reporting mediums. Tim Gallagher nailed it!

    Reply
    • April 16, 2019 at 12:50 pm
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      Thanks, Jerry.

      Reply
  • April 16, 2019 at 11:05 am
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    I’m hesitant to agree with this column. Yes, I hate the fact that shooters crave and enjoy publicity that comes from seeing their name in print, the web or on TV.
    However, you write, “Put attention on the innocent and not on the guilty.”
    This ignores a fundamental practice in journalism: We call them “suspects” until a jury declares them “guilty.”
    To assume the police have the right person is not objective journalism, even if the evidence appears overwhelming. We are not here to take sides, but to report the truth.
    Can you provide us some practical steps to take to minimize this publicity while still giving readers the full story? Keep in mind that just about everyone arrested has family and friends also looking for objective journalism in our work, not a presumption of guilt. On the flip side, we cannot give the families of victims any false hope that the suspect will be found guilty because of passionate writing.
    Two suggestions:
    1. Run an editorial that criticizes the actions of the shooter, even if the arrestee is still presumed innocent. Run more editorials on the victims and celebrate their lives. Run even more editorials encouraging residents on their duty to help law enforcement with witness testimony and evidence.
    2. As with other stories, write dispassionately. Avoid describing the scene or actions in anything other than cold, hard facts. Allow witnesses to speak so that you may accurately reflect your findings, but do not join in their emotions. Do not write with hopes of winning journalism awards.

    Reply
    • April 16, 2019 at 12:50 pm
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      Thanks, Gregory, for a thoughtful reply. I appreciate it.

      Reply
  • April 16, 2019 at 12:29 pm
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    But repeating their choice of tools for committing mass murder gets a free pass. In fact, it seems the more times media repeats “shooter” the better.

    What if the terms murder, mass murder and murderer were used instead of shooter? Not killer. Murderer. Why let murderers hide behind their weapon of choice then diminish their responsibility by focusing on firearms instead of the decision to murder?

    Reply

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