About News

After Mass Shootings, Public Safety and Good Journalism Collide

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

In the aftermath of the fatal shootings at Oxford (Michigan) High School last week, CNN’s Anderson Cooper continued his practice of recent years of not reporting the name of the shooter. This is becoming an increasingly popular editorial decision among news media.

The main reason for this is that, according to research and anecdotal evidence, most mass shooters commit their acts in large part to gain notoriety. Further, there’s evidence that fame for one mass shooter can motivate future ones.

One of the frequent voices on this point is Dr. Adam Lankford, a professor and researcher in the University of Alabama’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities,” he told The Associated Press in 2019. “They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”

Increasingly, law enforcement officers at press conferences, such as the prosecutor in Oakland County, Michigan, are limiting their mentions of suspect names to once or not at all. Online organizations, such as No Notoriety and Don’t Name Them, have joined the effort to persuade media to voluntarily eliminate or rein in the attention given to perpetrators in favor of more attention to victims. No Notoriety was started by the parents of a victim of the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

I’ve also noticed that this issue is chosen as an assignment topic by at least one of my ethics students every semester. I believe every single one of them concluded that the media should stop identifying mass killers. The only exception would be if police need help from the public in locating a suspect who isn’t in custody.

No one wants to play even a tiny, indirect role in causing a mass shooting, obviously. The hitch is, not identifying the person responsible for a major crime runs counter to the fundamental principle that journalists should tell a complete story. Some readers and viewers might understand, but most would feel deprived and frustrated.

There is a presumption that telling a complete story should serve a public benefit that outweighs the potential for harm. In the case of mass shootings, I see a clear benefit not only to identification but also to factual, non-sensationalized, non-glorifying profiles.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

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