Should Journalists Name Mass Murderers?

An open letter written by crime scholars, professors, and law enforcement officials came across my feed today. The letter contained an interesting request: Stop naming mass murderers.

The scholars ask journalists and the news media to not name mass murderers, nor show their pictures, nor use their name or likeness. The scholars say the media should “Report everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired.”

I’ll quote the letter’s signatories at length:

“We agree—and believe you will as well—that the particular sequence of letters that make up offenders’ names, and the particular configuration of bones, cartilage, and flesh that make up offenders’ faces are among the least newsworthy details about them. That information itself tells us nothing, and has no inherent value. However, by reporting everything else about these crimes in as much detail as desired, you can continue to fulfill your responsibility to the public.

As scholars, professors, and law enforcement professionals, we do not agree on everything. Some of us believe that by denying mass shooters fame, we would deter some future fame-seekers from attacking. Some of us believe that by no longer creating de facto celebrities out of killers, we would reduce contagion and copycat effects. Some of us believe that by no longer rewarding the deadliest offenders with the most personal attention, we would reduce the competition among them to maximize victim fatalities.

However, all of us agree that it is important to stop giving fame-seeking mass shooters the personal attention they want. This sentiment has already been echoed by many members of the United States government, the law enforcement community, and the media itself.

We recognize that there are exceptional cases, such as during the search for an escaped suspect, when the publication of that individual’s name and image may be temporarily necessary. However, we believe that in the vast majority of cases, the media can easily adhere to the guidelines stated above.”

The scholars go on to note that there are already cases where the media practices this: fans who run on the field of sporting events, sexual (and domestic) assault victims, underage mass shooters in Canada. The benefit of taking this stand, they say, is saved lives.

Among those who signed the letter are Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at The University of Alabama, and Eric Madfis, an associate professor of criminal justice at University of Washington, Tacoma. In September, Lankford and Madfis wrote in American Behavioral Scientist that research has shown that mass shooters have “explicitly admitted they want fame and have directly reached out to media organizations to get it.”

I struggle with this request, although I believe it is made in the best interest of society. On one hand, if what these professors and scholars say of mass killers’ desire for fame is true, obfuscating a mass murderers name and face fits in with the “Minimize Harm” charter of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics. “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast,” the SPJ’s code says.

However, we live in strange times where “the media” does not consist merely of news organizations, but an always-growing network of people across the world. In not reporting the name of a mass murderer, are journalists simply leaving the reporting of a mass murderer’s name to Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook? After all, these records will likely be publicly available, save for a change in public access to criminal and court records.

The scholars’ hearts and minds are in the right place. This is an issue that takes unique ideas; this is an idea that reporters, editors, and publishers should struggle with. But we need the help of scholars, too; how are we to prevent information on a mass murderer from leaking into the ether in the era of social media?

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