Not circulating the name of the shooter has gained momentum since the Christchurch tragedy. It has also spread to the US, evident in the reporting of the recent Virginia Beach mass shooting. Perhaps we should do the same.
The morning after the Darwin shooting should find us an important pivot. The police have reported the name of the man they believe responsible, and the media has circulated it.
This has been the pattern since time immemorial…until recently.
In response to the Christchurch shooting, which was publicity conscious, as the shooter ensured that his message would spread, via a live stream of the act and published manifesto, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the extraordinary step of not addressing him, stating that “He sought many things from his act of terror but one was notoriety, that is why you will never hear me mention his name,” she said of the gunman. “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless. And to others, I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we, in New Zealand, will give nothing – not even his name.”
In the wake of such hideousness, many questioned why so many media organisations published large parts of the shooter’s video, with Sky News, News.com.au and the Daily Mail Australia subject to an investigation by our media watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
While the brutality of Christchurch was certainly new, it did illuminate a naked truth about the publicity one gleans from the act of murder, and indeed, our growing opposition to it.
This new mode of thinking has even reached the shores of the United States, as in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting that claimed twelve people, the police named their suspect with a caveat, stating: “We’re going to mention his name once and then he will be forever referred to as ‘the suspect,’” Virginia Beach Police Chief James Cervera told reporters. “Our focus now is the dignity and respect to the victims in this case and to their families.”
However, this move has more behind it than respect and empathy, as research suggests that the language used to report and discuss mass shootings may play a role in preventing future ones.
The Virginia Beach attack represented the 172nd such incident in the US this year. Academics analysing the data believe that perpetrators of such crimes are often motivated by a desire for fame and attention. Media attention to previously obscure suspects (or indeed, the movements that inspired the act) can inspire copycat crimes.
Don’t Name Them, is a Texas State University program that offers guidelines for local agencies and media on reporting details of mass shootings. A similar group, No Notoriety, was founded by the parents of Alex Teves, a 24-year-old victim of the 2012 movie theatre shooting in Colorado.
It is worth mentioning that neither advocate masking the truth of a crime from the public. They merely suggest limiting the use of a suspect’s name and photograph, particularly in ways that offer a macabre kind of glory. Reprinting the self-aggrandising selfies a killer has posted to social media prior to an attack, is systemic of the issue. Regarding Darwin, the name, face and the history of the suspect was readily circulated, before the media decided to blur his features. Some reported the name, some didn’t. What is needed, I feel, is a universal rule.
Withholding facts from the public goes against many journalists’ instincts may feel like self-censorship. But there’s a precedent for strategically omitting details from reporting in order to prevent further harm. It’s the reason victims of sexual violence are typically not named in media reports, and it is why media outlets often don’t report on crimes like international kidnappings if there’s fear it could harm the chances of survival. That, so far, does not extend to those who commit mass shootings.
We may be proud of our anti-gun stance, but perhaps greater responsibility needs to emanate from those who know the information before us.