Following this weekend’s tragic mass killing in Nova Scotia that left at least 19 people dead, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked media outlets to “avoid” both mentioning the name of the primary suspect in the shooting spree and “showing” his picture.
“Do not give him the gift of infamy,” the prime minister said to reporters on Monday during his daily address outside his home in Ottawa.
“Let us instead focus all our intention and attention on the lives we lost and the families and friends who grieve.”
Trudeau isn’t the first world leader to make this kind of request following a mass shooting in recent years.
After a gunman killed 51 people and injured dozens of others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said she wouldn’t speak the perpetrator’s name and urged people to “deny” him the spotlight he sought.
Janice Tibbetts, a journalism instructor at Carleton University, said this request to stop disseminating the names of killers and instead focus on the victims first began to take hold about eight years ago after a mass shooting in a movie theatre outside of Denver, Colo.
While some politicians and law enforcement agencies have since employed that practice, Tibbetts said the No Notoriety movement hasn’t “caught on in a big way” across the news industry because “the media does consider that they have, for the most part, an obligation to give the facts.”
“It’s not something that is commonplace and it’s not something that is really happening in Canada,” she said.
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In the case of this past weekend’s shooting, the suspected shooter’s name, age and photograph were shared widely early on as police chased him through several communities in Nova Scotia and issued warnings on social media.
“Giving people that information, having his photo out there yesterday, that’s reporting and that’s a journalist’s job,” Tibbetts said.
In the aftermath, however, there’s a “balance” that can be achieved, Tibbetts said.
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Naming a suspected shooter in news coverage does have value, and it can serve several important purposes, she said, like stamping out “unfounded rumours” and misinformation and generally helping people “make sense of events.”
But at the same time, there’s no need to “go overboard” in the frequency of mentioning the perpetrator’s name, she added.
“You don’t have to belabour it and continually talk about the perpetrator or the shooter,” Tibbetts said. “You can focus on the victims. You can focus on the investigation. And I think that’s what you’ll see in the coverage today.
Issuing a blanket ban on publishing a perpetrator’s name from the start could pose a “danger” to news organizations, who then might be accused by readers and viewers of “holding back the truth,” said Stephen Ward, a retired media ethicist and former director of the University of British Columbia’s journalism school.
“My view is let’s not try to use his name more frequently than necessary, but we need to put a face and a name on this person,” Ward said.
“We need to find out why he did what he did. And that’s going to be impossible unless we use some of this information, including his name.”
Reporters are “inevitably” going to have to publish the name, and the spread of information on social media also makes it difficult to contain, Ward added.
“It’s a difficult situation. But right now, no, I don’t agree that major news organizations should follow the prime minister, with respect.”
A study of thousands of news articles about the Christchurch shooting by the Columbia Journalism Review noted that reconciling reporters’ responsibilities with the fact that many mass killers do “consciously” seek to spread their views through media coverage of their actions does create “a profound challenge for newsrooms.”
The study found, however, that “more” journalists are moving beyond reporting the textbook facts of “who, what, where, how and why” to bigger issues and questions surrounding the events, including how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
In Canada, news organizations ultimately make their own editorial decisions, and every outlet typically has their own guidelines and policies for journalistic practices and ethics.
For its part, Global News commits to following journalistic standards throughout this story while ensuring audiences are informed about developments in the case through sensitive, fair, and balanced coverage.
— With files from the Associated Press