The Media Can Prevent Mass Murderers From Becoming Famous

Outlets should withhold certain information—like the name of the Isla Vista killer.
Reuters

The person who perpetrated the murder spree in Santa Barbara knew that his name, his photograph, the video he made before he acted, and his written manifesto would be national news. He expected posthumous fame and an audience of millions.

He got it.

Like Zeynep Tufekci, who wrote about this phenomena two years ago in The Atlantic, "I am increasingly concerned that the tornado of media coverage that swirls around each such mass killing and the acute interest in the identity and characteristics of the shooter...may be creating a vicious cycle of copycat effects..." 

Ezra Klein has the same concern.

"Mass murderers want glory and fame," he wrote at Vox. "Somehow, we need to stop giving it to them." That sounds doable. By custom, the U.S. media doesn't report troop movements or the names of underage rape victims. Outlets follow certain practices when reporting on suicide, too. There's no reason that better practices can't develop around mass shootings. They needn't be adhered to by everyone to work.

They just need to be the norm.

I'd urge other journalists to use the aftermath of this tragedy to debate what norms ought to govern the press after the next one. A lot of thorny questions will be raised. 

To kick things off, I'll offer one suggestion: After an event like the mass murder in Santa Barbara, the press should publish neither the name nor the photo of the perpetrator. Would-be fame-seekers should know ahead of time that their name won't appear in the newspaper, or on Buzzfeed, or any other prominent outlet. (I don't propose that it be an official secret. If someone is determined to find the name someplace on the Web, that's fine. Preventing it from being a household name is sufficient.)

Would be fame seekers should also know that their photo won't be plastered across the screen on CNN or the local NBC affiliate or any other prominent outlet, if their crime seemed motivated in part by a desire to get just that kind of attention.

Coverage that self-censored the perpetrator's name and photograph wouldn't eliminate all perverse incentives. But it would deny a significant amount of notoriety. And the cost to the public would be low. No substantive conversation about the crime and its implications would suffer for lack of a specific name or photo. Tentatively speaking, creating this norm would seem to be a low-cost, high-benefit change. Agree? Disagree? I'd love input on this suggestion, and any other thoughts about the norms that ought to shape coverage of these sorts of events. Correspondence is encouraged. My email address is in the bio at the bottom of the page.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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