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No names or photos won't stop mass shooters, but we shouldn't humanize them with
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Dec. 21, 2018
Names and faces are not the problem, but the excessive and often irrelevant
details about the killers and their writings unnecessarily humanizes them.
The fall semester has ended, and final papers are in. That includes the
final report prepared by the Federal Commission on School Safety, an
assignment from Donald Trump in response to last February's mass shooting in
Parkland, FL. And just as students often fashion their term papers to
conform to their teachers' views, the Betsy DeVos-led team certainly gave
Trump recommendations that would be to his liking.
It is of little
surprise that the commission dismissed any thoughts about gun control and
promoted more armed school personnel, taking a position straight down the
party line the GOP (Gun Owners' Party), that is. The commission even took a
Trump-style attempt at media bashing in suggesting that publishing a
killer's identify and image encourages copycats.
The "no names or
photos" theme is hardly original, as CNN's Anderson Cooper and several
leading criminologists have urged journalists to take a "no notoriety"
pledge. And the concern isn't just about school shooters, but perpetrators
of other high-profile crimes as well, including public rampages, serial
murder, mob hits and terrorist bombings.
I appreciate the concern for
name and visual identification of murderers for fear of inspiring copycats
as well as to avoid insult to the memory of those they slaughtered. However,
names and faces are not the problem, but the excessive and often irrelevant
details too much information about the killers, their writings and
their backgrounds that unnecessarily humanizes them. We sometimes come to
know more about them their interests and their disappointments than we
do about our next-door neighbors. Too often the line is crossed between news
reporting and celebrity watch.
In the case of Las Vegas mass murderer
Stephen Paddock, a man whose name and face are widely recognized, we learned
about his past relationships and marriages, his job history, his enjoyment
of karaoke, his favorite casino games, an even what he ordered from room
service prior to the shooting. His relatives and acquaintances have been
interviewed by the press. The New York Times methodically traced through
visuals his every step in the days leading up to the massacre. And still we
don't have a handle on Paddock's motivation and inspiration.
more about shooters than neighbors.
Some suggest that compiling a
biographical profile of a killer will help us to identify future assailants
a clear case of wishful thinking. The level of published details about the
Las Vegas gunman went so far as to include a high school yearbook photo
depicting him standing among tennis teammates. Is his having played tennis
in any way relevant? Is a passion for tennis now to be considered a
potential red flag for mass murder?
The DeVos commission argues that the
opportunity for instant fame and becoming a household name attracts the
narcissistic and dangerous. That pales, however, in comparison to the common
practice of featuring the disturbing ideas and distorted theories expounded
by killers in letters, social media and videos. Killers who feel bullied by
peers or victimized by society often seek to air their grievances in the
public arena. Rampage killer Elliot Rodger left behind YouTube videos, and
Seung-Hui Cho paused during his Virginia Tech rampage to send explanatory
videotapes to NBC. Fame was not the objective, but their desire for us to
understand that they were not just some nut who killed for no good reason.
Rants from shooters should not be published
Treating their rants as
something worth publicizing is then exacerbated by the tendency to call such
diatribes a manifesto, a term more appropriately used to describe the views
of someone prominent. The one thing that Dylann Roof, the Charleston church
shooter, got right is in insisting that his writings should not be
characterized in this way.
Back in 1992, serial killer Leslie Allen
Williams exploited the Detroit-area media to the hilt by having news
stations complete for an exclusive interview. He also chose one of the
city's daily papers for the "privilege" of printing his 24-page open letter
to the public that expounded on his theories and philosophy of life.
Apparently, the tone of crime news journalism hasn't come very far in the
past quarter-century. And withholding the names and mug-shots of killers
will not do much to improve matters.James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.
He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on
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