Chris Harper-Mercer. John Russell Houser. Vester L. Flanagan II. Dylann Roof. Elliot Rodger. Adam Lanza. Seung-Hui Cho. James Holmes. I could go on, unfortunately, like this for a very long time, listing the men who in just the past few years have committed some of America's deadliest mass shootings. And I wouldn't be glorifying them. I wouldn't be giving them fame. I wouldn't be giving them what they wanted. I would be stating facts.
Because we now live in a country in which we need to have regular conversations about how we talk about it whenever some unhinged man with ammunition goes into a school or a church or a movie theater and starts murdering people, there has been of late a push to not put their names and faces all over the media, for fear of inspiring copycats. And indeed Mercer was allegedly enamored of Vester Flanagan, who killed two former television news colleagues live on the air this past summer. On MySpace, Mercer reportedly wrote, "I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."
After Mercer's deadly spree in Oregon last week, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to give him the attention in death that he sought in life. "You will never hear me mention his name," he said, vowing, "I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act." And Oregon State Police Superintendent Richard Evans added, "There's a national discussion and police movement not to give attention to a gunman in a mass shooting." The Oregonian claims that there's "a growing body of research linking public attention to mass shootings with temporary upticks in their frequency."
But writing on Poynter, Kelly McBride argued that there are many legitimate journalistic reasons for naming these criminals, including, significantly, preventing the spate of misinformation and misnaming we have seen in the wake of other acts of deadly violence. As she puts it, "Naming an individual sets the record straight." And she suggests, "Journalists would be better off promising to use the name responsibly." Likewise on Slate, Justin Peters noted that "Journalists are not supposed to elide relevant facts when reporting a news story just because reporting those facts might strike some people as offensive or wrong."
In the glut of the round-the-clock news cycle, we can be easily deluged with images of murderers, see their names attached to a "What we now know" infographic. Shoddy, lazy, exploitive reporting happens and it happens a lot. But it still doesn't put the onus of preventing any future mass murders on the shoulders of people giving you the news or discussing the social and political implications of current events.
Putting our hands over our ears and saying "LA LA LA I WON'T SEE YOU" doesn't address these acts of violence or their motivations. And saying, rather simplistically, "We won't give the guy what he wanted" is saying that disseminating information is secondary to meting out some form of retroactive punishment to murderers. And it's still putting the control over the story in their bloodied hands.
When Elliot Rodger went on his deadly killing spree last year, the most wrongheaded, exploitive voices in the media were quick to ponder about the roots of the "virgin killer" and in particular the girl who "made him hate women." More recently, after the Oregon shooting, news outlets noted that "Officials said Mercer lamented the fact that he did not have a girlfriend." But you know what? Women who reject future murderers are not responsible for future murders. Reporters who talk about current crimes are not responsible for future murders. The violent, unstable men who commit murder are.
And while we're on the subject, let's not ignore the tireless assistance they receive from the American gun lobby and the lawmakers who refuse to lift a finger to get deadly weapons out of the hands of sociopaths. Feel like pointing fingers? Start there.
We are all obliged to be ethical and honest, to check the facts, to work with integrity. But it's not our job to tiptoe around in fear on the chance of setting someone off. And if you want to know why killings like this keep happening, why they will happen again, don't blame it on saying the names of the men who committed these acts. Blame the men themselves.