Calls to refrain from naming perpetrators of mass violence for fear of granting them the notoriety they crave may seem noble, but the move could undermine Canada’s system of open courts and the principles of journalism, a media expert said Thursday.
Janice Tibbetts, a journalism professor at Carleton University, made the comments after a Toronto judge refused to name a man who killed 10 people and injured 16 others as she read his guilty verdict Wednesday, saying she would not help him achieve the infamy that had motivated his deadly rampage.
But Tibbetts said Justice Anne Molloy’s call to keep such murderers’ names out of the media in future goes against the tenets of journalism.
“Our job is to give people the facts and give people the news,” Tibbetts said. “…People have to make sense of events. And to do that, they need to know the facts of the case, and they need to know the name of the person who did it. They have to attach a name to that person.”
She said naming a person is key to transparency, and also accountability.
“The court system is open,” Tibbetts said. “We want to keep it that way in the interest of being able to report on proceedings so that justice is seen to be done.”
She added that it’s possible to strike a balance by not repeating the name of the accused any more than is necessary, and by ensuring victims’ stories are also told.
In referring to Alek Minassian only as John Doe in her verdict, both read aloud and in her written reasons, Molloy lent another voice to a growing chorus urging police, media and the public at large to refrain from naming fame-seeking mass murderers.
“This accused committed a horrific crime, one of the most devastating tragedies this city has ever endured, for the purpose of achieving fame,” Molloy said in her decision.
Molloy noted that Minassian’s name had already been in legal documents and media reports for years before she rendered her judgment.
“There is nothing I can do to rewind all of that,” she wrote. “However, if any case like this should arise in the future, it is my fervent wish that, at the very outset, careful consideration be given to withholding publication of the name of the perpetrator.”
Toronto police identified Minassian as the suspect just a few hours after the April 23, 2018, attack. There have been no court-ordered publication bans on his name since then.
Ivor Shapiro, a journalism professor at Ryerson University, said he sees no problem with judges urging media not to report the names of those accused of some types of crime.
“If we were in a position where there was a court order not to use his name, we’d be having an entirely different conversation,” he said.
Police often release names and photos of crime suspects to the public in hopes of encouraging witnesses to come forward.
A spokeswoman for the Toronto Police Service said the agency doesn’t have a position on Molloy’s suggestion, but noted that officers look to legislation and procedure when “determining how and when to release identifying information about suspects, accused persons, witnesses and victims.”
The movement to not name people accused of serious crimes has gained steam in the three years since Minassian carried out his van attack.
Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged the media to avoid mentioning the name of the man who carried out a mass killing in Nova Scotia.
“Do not give him the gift of infamy,” Trudeau said the day after the April 2020 rampage, urging people to instead focus on the victims and their loved ones.
That call echoed a vow from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in March 2019, that she would never say the name of a man who opened fire on a Christchurch mosque, killing 50 people.
Molloy’s move pleased those most affected by Minassian’s actions, including the family members of some of his victims.
“I haven’t used the name of the perpetrator since it happened for that reason,” said Nick D’Amico, whose sister Anne Marie D’Amico was killed in the attack. “We can get fame in positive ways. We don’t have to go down that road.”
Elwood Delaney, whose grandmother Dorothy Sewell died in the attack, said he plans to go back and edit Minassian’s name out of Facebook posts he’s made in the past.
“The more he talks about what he wanted out of it, he definitely wanted fame,” Delaney said. “I will respect (Molloy’s) wish and not name him and call him John Doe.”