The familiar post-shooting coverage has rippled out from the Roseburg, Ore., tragedy, and among the usual stories of the victims, the heroes, the funerals and the motives, a debate about naming the shooter has appeared.
It’s been a useful discussion, with positive effects on news coverage of this event, but it’s also been a distraction.
Advocates of ignoring the shooter have made some important points. There runs among these tales a common pattern: a vulnerable young man yearns to transform his anonymity into infamy. Carefully editing an event’s news coverage can signal to other troubled young men that notoriety won’t be their twisted payoff.
Dr. Deb Harper, a Providence Medical Group pediatrician, avoids naming shooters and other terrorists publicly. Against a frightening trend she can’t control, this is one area she can.
She’s convinced that these shooters share a desire for a sort of deranged hypermasculinity, a bad-ass, gun-wielding power that fuels a dark celebrity. She’s not willing to feed it.
The sheriff in Roseburg vowed he wouldn’t say the name of the shooter, and citizens of the community were outraged when news organizations did. People angrily said they didn’t want to know one thing about the perpetrator.
And yet. Human nature works against this well-intentioned argument.
We’re intensely curious creatures, especially where our own security is concerned. When we hear someone has been murdered, the first question we ask is: “Who did it?”
That’s one reason why the public institution of journalism has a long tradition of sorting fact from rumor and helping citizens examine the nature of public tragedies. The best, highest-quality journalism plays an important role in helping society examine the causes, the motivations and, ultimately, the solutions for these horrible events.
In the last decade, the reach and influence of the news industry has shrunk. Mainstream news organizations once played a gatekeeper role. If reporters and editors decided the public didn’t have a need to know certain information, the journalists could keep it out of the public eye.
Today, even if every news organization in the country agreed to omit the name of the Oregon shooter from their news reports, his name would quickly surface in blogs and tweets. Simple human curiosity would prevail, and without professional journalists to verify the facts, the resulting rumors and gossip would likely cause considerable damage.
Harper, for one, isn’t opposed to the responsible reporting of a criminal’s name and story. She points out that news about similar crimes has been an important part of solving them. She recalls that when The New York Times printed the manifesto written by the Unabomber, his family members recognized Ted Kaczynski from his writing style and alerted the FBI.
Thanks, in part, to campaigns like #dontsayhisname, many news organizations have removed the Oregon shooter’s name and photograph from page one and from 24-hour news coverage; that’s an improvement.
But ultimately, it’s only low-hanging fruit.
Without the access to deadly firearms, these lame young men would need to seek other, potentially healthier, obsessions. A study published in the Journal of American Medicine in 2013 showed that more firearm safety laws in a state were associated with fewer gun-related deaths.
Harper believes that it will be organizations of law enforcement officers and military service members, people who use firearms and best understand their terrible powers, who will be most effective in finally moving this country to accept new gun safety regulations.
I hold out hope that moms and grandmas, who may lack some Y-chromosome-style credibility, but make up for it in a fervent commitment to protecting the country’s youngest and most vulnerable members, will have an equally strong impact. As will the many other voices of sanity in our country.
Regulations that keep guns out of the hands of these weakest of young men should be the target for us all.
Jamie Tobias Neely, a former member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board, is an associate professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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