Media, Activists Divided On What Details To Report After School Shootings

"There are quite a few people who would rather be famous than good," a psychiatrist says.

Police Chief Rick Smith was glued to the television last week for a press conference about the mass killings at a rural Oregon community college.

It brought back horrible memories for Smith, who leads the police department in Marysville, Washington. Less than a year ago, a 15-year-old high school freshman there entered the school cafeteria and fatally shot his cousin and three other students before turning the gun on himself.

Smith refused to publicly name the shooter, saying the attention should be on the victims. He said it pleased him to watch Sheriff John Hanlin, of Douglas County, Oregon, declare that his office refused to publicly identify the 26-year-old gunman at Umpqua Community College who killed eight students and a professor. Hanlin said he worried that too much focus on the shooter could inspire copycats.

“I felt validated in what I did,” Smith said. “I knew exactly where he was coming from. I thought it was the right thing for him to do in that moment.”

Hanlin’s comments gave a boost to growing calls from some victims’ groups, psychiatrists and law enforcement officials for the media to avoid using the name of shooters and other personal information about them after a mass killing.

“I will not give him the credit he probably sought, prior to this horrific and cowardly act,” Hanlin said of the killer. It was the 45th school shooting in the U.S. this year.

The sheriff’s office didn’t respond to HuffPost’s inquiries.

News outlets have been grappling with what information to publish about gunmen in mass killings. Last week, Fox News’ Megan Kelly traded tweets with CNN’s Don Lemon over their competing philosophies. For those seeking a total blackout on mass shooters, there’s a Google Chrome extension called "Fame Control" that blocks killers' names from appearing in Facebook and Twitter feeds.

University at Buffalo professor and psychiatrist Steven Dubovsky said the media should withhold all but the bare minimum about shooters who seek attention through despicable acts. Gratuitous photos and so-called manifestos should not be highlighted, he said.

“They’re doing this to get themselves in front of the public eye and it doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative,” Dubovsky said. “It desensitizes everybody to violence and mayhem, so they have to do even more ghastly things to make an impact on the media and public. There are quite a few people who would rather be famous than good.”

Indeed, Chris Harper-Mercer, the Umpqua Community College shooter, apparently praised Vester Flanagan, the gunman who killed a television journalist and cameraman on the air in Roanoke, Virginia, in August. The cycle stretched back even farther. Flanagan, in a fax to ABC News, had praised the Columbine and Virginia Tech mass killers.

Mass shootings can happen in clusters, according to a recent study led by Arizona State University professor Sherry Towers, and news coverage factors into the pattern.

Worries about copycat killers led the parents of Alex Teves, a Colorado moviegoer killed along with 11 others during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” to launch a “no notoriety” campaign. They want the media to self-censor by keeping mass killers out of the spotlight with a focus on the victims.

"[S]end the message that their lives are more important than the killer," the campaign's website says.

Failing to name shooters poses obvious drawbacks for the media. Circulating a name in news reports may help generate tips to investigators from people who knew the shooter. Identifying the culprit also produces data that may indicate trends about mass shooters, the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride argued in a recent defense of revealing shooters' names.

There’s no consensus that subdued news coverage would eliminate mass shootings. Calls to reform gun laws and mental health care always echo after a high-profile public attack.

Unless stronger evidence emerges linking to news coverage to mass killings, journalists should continue digging into backgrounds of perpetrators, according to Stanford University communications professor Theodore Glasser.

“You can’t be concerned about a copycat effect. Do we withhold a story because two people might act?” Glasser asked.

Instead, coverage should be more sophisticated, Glasser said. “The question for journalists is not, ‘Why did this guy do this?’ It has to be, ‘Why are you doing this story?' Someone has to think more than if it’s titillating.”

The very information that some say only glorifies the culprit -- such as photos, manifestos and social media posts -- is not irrelevant, as it actually becomes valuable evidence to investigators.

During the recent terrorism trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, the prosecution relied heavily on his tweets and personal photos to establish that he had radical beliefs. Some of this material had been uncovered by journalists shortly after Tsarnaev, 21, was identified as a suspect in the April 2013 attack.

When Dylann Roof stands trial next year in the killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, it's likely jurors will see photos of Roof posing at Confederate war sites and excerpts of racist writings online linked to him that have appeared in news coverage.

Withholding details that may help explain a shooter’s motive runs counter to basic journalism principles.

“That’s not an act that should come naturally to us, but there’s something to be said about restraint in publishing photos, manifestos and online rants,” said University of Missouri journalism professor Katherine Reed. “Yes, people want to know, but should we do a bad job just because people want to know?”

A possible precedent comes from coverage of suicides. After a spate of suicides in Vienna's subway in the mid-1980s, local media began to give far less prominence to the deaths at the behest of researchers, who believed media coverage unleashed a copycat impulse. With new media guidelines, suicides dropped by 75 percent, according to studies.

Mass murder deserves journalists' attention, but perhaps details about the shooter should be released slowly, according to Ari Schulman, senior editor at the New Atlantis who's written about the topic.

"There are some clear costs that we have to balance," Schulman said. "It's a genuine dilemma."

The 1999 Columbine High School killings often are cited as a turning point in the mass media’s relationship with murder. News programs broadcast security footage of shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, guns in hand, stalking the school cafeteria.

Some coverage of such crimes has been reckless, critics say.

Smith, the police chief in Marysville, Washington, said he was frustrated that journalists had begun circulating pictures and tweets of the high school gunman before police had confirmed his identity.

Reporters covering the Oregon shooting exercised better judgment, Smith said.

“They’re being responsible,” said Smith. “I heard them say on cable news that we’re going to be very cautious because we don’t have all the facts.”

Also on HuffPost:

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the university where Katherine Reed teaches journalism. She is a professor at the University of Missouri, not Columbia University.

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