At least two people are dead and a dozen more injured after a gunman opened fire Sunday night in Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood. Eyewitnesses to the attack described blood everywhere, a young woman shot and killed while trying to run away and then, shot again, while lying on the ground. Paramedics rushed a 10-year-old girl to the hospital in critical condition. She died.
We don’t know yet who did it, only that he was a 29-year-old man. He is dead after fleeing the scene. But when police do release his name, should reporters broadcast it to the public? Will blanketing coverage with his name and his photo do more harm than good?
“I think everyone agrees that law enforcement should use the perpetrator’s name when conducting investigations and even the media should be free to use that name when conducting their own investigations but does that mean the name has to be in the news coverage?” University of Alabama criminology professor Adam Lankford said.
“Does everyone in Canada and around the world who is following this shooting have that need to know?”
Lankford is the co-author of “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, But Report Everything Else,” a 2017 study recommending against naming the perpetrators of mass shootings in an effort to deter possible copycats. Lankford is also one of nearly 150 researchers, academics and law enforcement professionals who signed their names to an open letter to reporters last October asking them to “stop giving fame-seeking mass shooters the personal attention they want.”
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That letter posits that the perpetrator’s name and face “are among the least newsworthy details about them.” By sharing that information, the letter goes on, the media could be incentivizing “future fame-seekers,” helping create celebrity killers, and encouraging competition among perpetrators of mass violence to “maximize victim fatalities.”
It’s a familiar debate – to name or not to name – that emerges after almost every mass shooting, most of which occur in the United States. While some TV anchors like CNN’s Anderson Cooper refuse to name the perpetrators, most still do.
In an article for Poynter, media ethicist Kelly McBride laid out why they should. With a name you get context, she says. You allow people to come forward and voice past concerns that could be relevant, you make it possible to search their past records to see where they got access to their weapons, what past crimes they may have committed.
Names allow the public to identify trends, McBride wrote, chief among them: crimes of mass violence are most often the work of young, white men. It can also prevent suspects from being wrongly named, as was the case in the Sandy Hook shooting when journalists told the public Ryan Lanza was the shooter when it was actually his brother Adam Lanza.
“Naming an individual sets the record straight,” she wrote.
Reporters should name perpetrators, said Andrew Seaman, ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, via email.
How to best cover mass shootings is a topic of ongoing debate for the society, he said, but ultimately the goal is responsible and truthful coverage.
“That has to include naming and showing the person who is suspected of perpetrating such a terrible crime,” Seaman said. “Otherwise, people begin to speculate and dangerous rumours begin to spread.”
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But media already hold back certain information from the public, Lankford said. They often withhold offensive language or the names of people who have been the victims of sexual assault.
“To me, that shows that we already determine in many cases that if something’s offensive or something would violate someone’s privacy that we’re not going to blast it all over the media,” he said.
“This is the same kind of thing … why would we print it if it could potentially lead to more attacks in the future?”
Recognizing that most media still publish perpetrators’ names, Lankford said its important for outlets to decide how and when to share the name, to say, “look, if the people want the name of the perpetrator they can find it on our website, but we’re not going to give this person celebrity treatment.”
The key is to be cautious, said Pete Blair, executive director of the ALERRT Center at Texas State University. The ALERRT Center developed a “Don’t Name Them” campaign specifically because of the risk of wall-to-wall coverage creating celebrities, he said.
“We encourage media outlets to focus as much as possible on the community, the heroes, the victims where it’s appropriate, what people can do to protect themselves, signs of when someone is heading down this pathway to try to prevent,” Blair said.
It isn’t about hiding the information but reducing the risk of fetishization, he went on, reducing the likelihood that some future attacker will commit mass violence and then point to the Columbine High School shooters as their motivation.
“We know there will be some coverage and that the name will get out,” Blair said. “If we can limit it to make it not be wall-to-wall, you’re now famous, everybody knows your life history, your manifesto gets published, your glamour shots you sent the media get published, all those things, then you’ve reduced the reward that that person is seeking.”
Then, he said, you hope that “that doesn’t look as attractive to someone else.”
Ron Waksman, vice-president of news content for Global News and Corus Radio, said the aim is to use the names of perpetrators “sparingly and responsibly, without glamourizing or sensationalizing what they’ve done, so as not to re-traumatize the victims.”
Still, he said, it’s important to provide viewers with as much information as possible.
“The name of a perpetrator can lead to important questions and answers related to motive, which everyone wants to understand in the immediate aftermath. The perpetrator’s name also typically raises issues related to mental health, acquiring weapons and gun laws,” Waksman said.
“However, it’s also important to balance our pursuit of the facts with humanizing stories about who the victims were in life, how they lived and contributed to their communities.”