Why We Need to Look at the Faces of Killers

In the wake of last week's mass killing in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, along with discussions of what went wrong, there's a growing debate as to how the media should handle these sorts of news stories.

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In the wake of last week's mass killing in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, along with discussions of what went wrong, how this could happen, and what this means or should mean for the state of gun control in the U.S., there's a growing debate about how the media should handle these sorts of news stories. Particularly moving was the recent statement of Jordan Ghawi, the brother of Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sportscaster who used the last name Redfield and who was killed in Theater 9 after nearly escaping another shooting in Toronto just weeks before.

Ghawi told Anderson Cooper, "I want people to know about the 11 others who've died ... I also don't want the media to be saturated with the shooter's name. The more air time that these victims have, the less time that man gets his two seconds on television ... I want the victims to be remembered rather than this coward." Cooper agrees, telling Ghawi, "I really don't want to even use this guy's name very much because I just don't think it should be known a month from now, a week from now, or even tomorrow ... I think it should be forgotten."

These are powerful statements, and Ghawi is right that we should spend more time thinking about and honoring the victims and their grieving families than we do googling for every last bit of titillating information about the alleged murderer, James Holmes, who may or may not have had a Match.com account (I'm not linking to that story, though you can easily google it, because I think it's an example of the gross sort of thing we need not know, a story that adds nothing to the conversation that we should be having.)

It's a fair question, though: Should we give even an ounce of attention to the killer in this situation, when doing so not only gives him what we assume he wants (more attention) and also may inspire copycats or future mass killers to do the same for the same measure of attention—or more? At the same time, is it really practical to think that we can block out the killer's name and face, that we won't remember the name of this person who brought such unexpected tragedy into the lives of so many? Further, is it even wise that we try to do this: Should we actively "forget" the name of this person, and what do we lose if we do?

This is a discussion that two of my Atlantic colleagues have addressed as well. In a piece over the weekend, Robert Wright asked "How to Discourage Aurora Copy Cats?" He argues that Holmes did what he did, presumably, in part for the enormous media response he'd get, for the chance to see himself on the front of national newspapers and discussed on every TV news channel. There may be other "angry, aggrieved loners who aren't yet uncoiling but may now consider that possibility," he writes. "They'll see the picture of James Holmes on a front page or a home page and imagine how nice it would be to see their picture there. That aspiration may seem crazy to you and me, but, remember, we're talking about crazy people ... And I guess if you're crazy in that particular way, even the twisted affirmation Holmes has gotten seems appealing. You get to punish society doubly for ignoring you--kill some people and then force the rest of them to finally take a look at you."

As the argument goes, the media, then, in showing the photos and reporting the names of killers, may actually be complicit in increasing the chances of another mass killing. To stop this, Wright suggests, major media players should stop showing the images of accused mass killers (it must be noted that his post does include such an image, though it's only a partial shot of Holmes' face and used as background). Maybe, he says, this discretion would then "trickle down."

J.J. Gould continues the conversation today in a piece called "Disrupting the Infamy Game: How to Change the Coverage of Mass Shootings." In it, Gould harks back to Herostratus, who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in the fourth century BC so that history would record his name (he got his way), and then asks, with reference to Roger Ebert's New York Times op-ed on Friday, Wright's post, and also a 1993 paper by Clayton Cramer: "Given that intense media coverage of mass killings (a) plays straight into the perpetrators' tendency to want recognition for their crimes, and (b) encourages copycat iterations, can major media outlets police themselves not to play into these dynamics?"

Gould says of course we can develop a code of ethics in an attempt to counter the snowball effect by which the larger the crime, the larger the media attention is given, but that we won't, or at least, cable news won't hold themselves to it, even if traditional papers might. And, as Gould continues, "It might be in the big print-based players' long-term interest to adopt an anti-deathsplotation norm to distinguish themselves from the exhausting, tawdry interpretation of 'news' that the cable-news networks fall into. But in a media environment driven by cable-news networks to the extent that ours is, it seems likely that these networks would simply win out -- and unlikely that too many folks at the Times or the Post would spend long feeling bewildered at why their moral leadership hadn't brought on a new pan-media consensus." He says a more effective strategy might be for the media organizations that are doing the right thing—buoyed by a civilian group of social media activists—to shame those doing the wrong "for their journalistic failures in covering stories like the Aurora killings."

If you've ever tried to shame TMZ, however, you know this is something of a losing battle. Some of the problem is that we're in a new world with regard to media, where the old standards don't apply in the same way. There is no such thing as a "trickle down." Major media organizations are not "setting the rules" for others to follow. Everyone is in a high-speed chase to the finish, and if one person gets it, the rest do as well, and are quick to confirm and post as either their own or with attribution to the original. This is true not only of blogs and aggregators, but of "major media organizations." Also, those who are doing shameful things don't really care, so long as they keep being read (and of course, if they have the news, they will be).

Imagine, if the New York Times and CNN, for instance, left the identification of an alleged killer, his name and face, to the blogs, to Reddit, to TMZ, to Twitter or Facebook. What if the information were left to media "vigilantes" to put forth on their own websites? Because if the information is there (didn't we see this with the box office for the film, which Hollywood had promised to keep quiet over the weekend but which came out anyway?), the information will come out. The chance of news like this remaining secret in this day and age is about zero. The question, then, becomes, how do we put out this information responsibly? Who should we be hearing the facts from? How do we do the right stories, not glorifying this killer, but getting out the information the public needs to hear and see, for healing, for prevention, for knowledge?

Because there are a lot of victims in a case like this, and as much as the public is suffering to a far less extent than those who lost their lives or a family member or friend, the public is reeling as well, trying to figure out what to do next, what to do to prevent this from happening again. We do need information. We need to see what "evil" looks like; we need to see that it looks like a boy next door, an ordinary if academically talented young white man, a person who was twisted internally, but not, by appearances, externally—until perhaps that last moment when he dyed his hair a virulent neon orange and dressed in black ballistic gear and walked into that theater. We need to know that his last name is "Holmes," that he is a homegrown American boy, that we can't blame anyone other than ourselves, in these United States, even if what he did is a form of terrorism. We have to know the facts, not only because they are facts, but because there's a value in knowing that we can't stereotype evil. Terrible doings are not confined to certain types of people or people who look a certain way. As much as it's painful, we have to look at the faces of the people who do horrific things to teach ourselves a lesson. And if we don't know his name, his history, what he came from, why, what do we learn about stopping this from happening again? Even if it seems like he's some, in the Internet parlance, "troll" we should turn our backs on or ignore, we're talking about a situation in which the media has a responsibility to get the word—the accurate, true word—out, in hopes that we can stop stuff like this from happening again.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't also share space and even give more of it to the victims. Every time we think of Holmes, we should think of them, too, and their families and friends who now mourn them. The 6-year-old girl, Virginia Moser-Sullivan, whose pregnant mom was shot, too, but survived. The 51-year-old dad, Gordon Cowden. Alex Teves, Matt McQuinn, and Jon Blunk, who died protecting their girlfriends. Jessica Redfield, the aspiring sportscaster, just 24. Alex Sullivan, who went to the movie for his birthday. Micayla Medek, 23, and AJ Boik, 18, both still younger than their youthful killer. Rebecca Wingo, a single mom with kids. And Jesse Childress and John Larimer, both members of the U.S. military. Don't forget, either, about all the people who've been wounded, and are hoped to recover, and the people who were in the theater and escaped without physical harm but now have to process the horrific memories of what they went through.

We also need to acknowledge, though, that it's not the media that's driving people like Holmes to kill—wouldn't that make things so much easier, we could just shut it all down! As much as we want to play the blame game in our search for answers, blaming the media for causing this man's actions is as spurious as blaming a Batman movie or the video games a boy or man who becomes violent might have played. Maybe these are triggers of some sort, but they are hardly the root cause of what this person did. To ban video games because they might be played and then "drive" a person to kill is as ludicrous as banning the publication of the names of killers in the press.

How we talk about Holmes in the media is important, but not talking about him at all fails to do the victims, and all of us, a service, as well. It's a fictional comparison, but not saying the name "Voldemort" hardly prevented people from talking about the most evil person in Harry Potter's magical world; if anything, it made that man more powerful and imbued him with an even deeper evil and mythical status. Information is power; censoring information or being afraid to disseminate it is not.

But after the initial information is given, do we need to keep seeing it over and over again, the faces like Jared Loughner's or Alexander Breivik's, the crazy joker hair that an alleged Holmes is sporting in an Adult Friend Finder photo, or that picture from the University of Colorado in which he appears "normal" other than a strange, glassy look in his eyes? Seeing something too much is as dangerous as not seeing it at all; it becomes meaningless, just part of the media wallpaper that we begin to ignore. The most terrifying fact of all isn't that his name won't be forgotten to honor the victims, it's that his name will be forgotten because in this 24-hour news cycle, we've simply moved on to something new. Before that happens, let's do our best to learn what we can.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.