NEW YORK – Some relatives of people killed in the Colorado theater shooting are urging television news outlets to resist using alleged killer James Holmes’ name and image in their stories for fear it gives him the infamy they believe he craves.
Two families made that specific point to Anderson Cooper on CNN, who said Tuesday he has largely complied. Some news experts, while saying journalists must be attuned to these sensitivities, also warned against losing sight of the chief responsibility to inform the public.
Tom Teves, whose son Alex was among 12 people shot and killed Friday in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” challenged TV news divisions during a Monday interview with Cooper.
“I would like to see CNN come out with a policy that said moving forward we’re not going to talk about the gunman,” Teves said. “What we’re going to say is, a coward walked into a movie theater and started shooting people. He’s apprehended. The coward’s in jail. He will never see the light of day again. Let’s move on to the victims. Never talk to him again.”
Jordan Ghawi, whose 24-year-old sister Jessica was killed, said he has been talking publicly about her in part because “I don’t want the media to be saturated with the shooter’s name. The more air time these victims have, the less time that man gets his time on television.
“I can tell you the shooter in Virginia Tech and Norway and not long ago here in Denver,” Ghawi told CNN on Friday. “I don’t want that to happen here. I want the victims to be remembered rather than just this coward.”
Cooper said he didn’t use Holmes’ name at all while he was on the air Monday, instead using phrases like “suspect,” “accused killer” or “accused shooter.” He also tried to limit images of Holmes on his show, airing some from the suspect’s court appearance Monday about halfway through his hourlong newscast.
He said his show was acting on its own, not from some CNN directive.
“Obviously my primary role is to report and be a journalist and tell people as much as possible,” he said. “I think people know that person’s name. They certainly know it by now and they’ve certainly seen the pictures over and over again.”
Traveling to Colorado to report on the scene gives journalists a better idea of the community’s sensitivity than they might otherwise get, he said.
News executives constantly hear from people who don’t want disturbing pictures shown, either because they are painful or give undue publicity to people responsible for brutal acts, said Marcy McGinnis, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a longtime former CBS News executive.
“If you follow that, unfortunately, you would basically get to the point where you would never show anything of a tragic nature because it always affects somebody personally,” she said.
Who Holmes is and why he allegedly committed the atrocity is a major part of the story, she said, and digging into this could provide information that someday stops a person from doing something similar.
At the same time, most people were curious about what Holmes looked like when he made his first court appearance on Monday, she said. A larger issue for 24-hour news networks moving forward will be the temptation to use images of Holmes so often they become like video wallpaper, especially because photos of him with dyed hair and wild eyes are so striking.
Cooper said he didn’t think it was an either-or situation. “I think you can be sensitive to a community’s feelings and still report accurately and with as much detail as anybody else,” he said.