At a press conference in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Monday, police and other authorities did not refer to Devin Patrick Kelley, the shooter who killed 25 people in a small Baptist church on November 5, by name. Freeman Martin, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told reporters the omission was intentional. “We don’t want to glorify what he’s done,” Martin said.
As mass shootings become more frequent, a number of organizations have begun urging law enforcement officials and reporters to deflect attention away from shooters, focusing instead on their victims. The idea is shifting attention to victims and survivors will prevent the “contagion effect,” or copycat shootings inspired by media coverage of past shooters. The movement to limit the contagion effect is spearheaded by groups like Don’t Name Them, a joint effort by Texas State University and the F.B.I., and No Notoriety, which was founded by the parents of one of the victims of the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Both groups encourage reporters who cover mass shootings to not publish the names and likenesses of shooters after they’ve been caught. They also ask that new organizations refrain from publishing any manifestos or social media posts written by the shooter.
Diana Hendricks, the communications director at Texas State’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, told The Outline that centering victims’ narratives and preventing copycat shooters are among Don’t Name Them’s main priorities. “The Umpqua Community College shooter in Oregon idolized the man who killed the two TV reporters on camera two months before. He said something along the lines of, ‘I noticed so many people like him are all alone and unknown. They spill blood, then the whole world knows who they are,’” Hendricks said. “That shooter, who I won’t name, went on in his ramblings and blogs and Facebook posts, to say, ‘It seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.’”
The appeal of these campaigns is understandable. Television coverage of mass shootings is nothing short of frenzied, especially as shootings become more common and more deadly. Experts suggest that superlatives, like “the deadliest mass shooting ever,” could encourage future killers to aim bigger. And some shooters are undeniably inspired by high-profile acts of violence — Kelley, for example, reportedly had an “obsession with guns and mass shootings.” Perhaps most importantly, the appeal of campaigns like Don’t Name Them rests in their ability to be apolitical. Democrats and Republicans may bicker over gun control, but refusing to name killers and instead focusing on victims is a nonpartisan movement.
Doesn’t refusing to say killers’ names imbue them with notoriety as well?
As well-intentioned as these campaigns are, however, there is no such thing as an anodyne solution to America's gun violence. It’s possible that not publishing shooters’ names or manifestos as a way of preventing copycats could backfire. If sensationalized coverage of mass shootings gives killers notoriety, doesn’t refusing to say their names imbue them with notoriety as well?
This an idea that has been reckoned for decades. Writing for Nieman Lab, Irish journalist Ed Moloney reflected on Irish media’s inadequate coverage of The Troubles, the country’s three-decade-long guerrilla war between the Catholic nationalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to be independent from the United Kingdom, and the Protestant unionists, who wanted the country to remain in the U.K . Beginning in 1976, U.K. television and radio outlets were prohibited from broadcasting “the spoken words of members of proscribed organizations” including the Irish Republican Army,” Moloney writes “Supporters of censorship claimed it help curb support for violent groups like the IRA.” However, Moloney concludes that “censorship, like Prohibition, only made the forbidden more alluring.”
If we don’t talk about shooters and their motivations, we’ll never address the root causes of these massacres. Framing gun violence as “senseless” reinforces the notion that shooters are committing violence for violence’s sake. The controversial August 2013 cover of Rolling Stone, which featured Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is an example of both the right and wrong ways to report on shooters and others who commit mass acts of violence. Janet Reitman’s probing, deeply reported profile, which revealed how Tsarnaev was slowly radicalized, was tarnished by the cover shot of Tsarnaev, which made him seem more like a smoldering celebrity than a domestic terrorist.
Regardless, exploring a person’s motivation for committing an act of violence doesn’t mean that you sympathize with them. Moloney writes that during The Troubles, writing about the IRA “was tantamount to saying you were a fellow traveler of the IRA…. The reasoning went like this: You had to be a fellow traveler because how else could you write about such people unless you talked to them like they were human beings and not the monsters they undoubtedly were. And if you did that, then you must secretly sympathize with them.”
There is no such thing as an anodyne solution to America's gun violence.
As careless as the Rolling Stone cover featuring Tsarnaev was, reporting on killers’ backgrounds and motivations is well within the public interest. If we don’t know what drives bombers and shooters to commit acts of violence, how can we prevent future bombings and shootings from occurring? Although some killers leave behind manifestos because they want to be turned into martyrs, that doesn’t mean these documents should be ignored. After 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others in Isla Vista, California in 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center dug up old social media posts which revealed Rodger’s misogyny and racism and provided clues regarding his radicalization. “My Twisted World,” Rodger’s 137-page manifesto is a necessary part of understanding his motivations.
Similarly, the manifesto of Dylann Roof, who in 2015 killed nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., revealed his virulent racism. Roof’s manifesto was unearthed by two writers, one of whom told The Daily Beast it was her “duty and obligation… to help ruin this guy’s insanity plea.” While Rodger and Roof are examples of misogyny and violence taken to their logical extremes, it’s not hard to find people making similar arguments on 4chan or the now-defunct “incel” subreddit, a misogynistic forum for so-called “involuntary celibates.” Publishing Rodger and Roof’s manifestos isn’t a way of glorifying them — it’s a window into virulently racist and misogynistic circles, a way for the public to understand what can happen when hatred for women and people of color is left unchecked. As the New York Times’s former public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote after the paper was criticized for publishing Rodger’s video confession in 2014, there is a difference between contextualizing a killer’s manifesto and elevating it.
When I asked Hendricks if reporting on killers’ manifestos can benefit the public, she disagreed. “The investigation needs to [focus] on that, but civilians, community members, people who live 2,000 miles away — do we need to know?” Hendricks said. “I think what it boils down to is, are we going to make household names out of them for their 15 minutes of fame? Do they deserve it?”
“If [a shooter] was still out and loose, it’s important. We’re not saying never name the killer; we’re saying don’t give him airtime, and don’t use your valuable airtime and ink on this person,” Hendricks said. Instead, she suggests reporters focus on survivors and victims first, and then “what people can do in a situation like that. How you could possibly get away. What if there is a shooter who walks into a building you’re in? Let’s talk about what kind of preparations can be better made for facilities or schools.”
It’s worth noting that most mass shooters have a history of domestic violence. Reporting on shooters’ home lives, then, is not a way of glorifying them or sensationalizing the violent act they committed; it’s a necessary part of understanding the root causes of this violence. Teaching Americans how to prepare for mass shootings has arguably become a grim necessity. If sensationalized coverage of mass shootings is a disservice to victims, so is accepting gun violence as a given and ignoring warning signs when we see them.