Op-ed: Stop naming mass murderers in the media!
The following is an op-ed written by Neil McArthur, philosophy professor and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at U of M, and Darek Dawda, a Winnipeg-based clinical psychologist. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Oct. 19, 2017.
We will never have a full explanation for the tragic events on Oct. 1 in Las Vegas. But current research suggests the desire for fame plays a significant role in motivating mass murderers. The media can play a role in helping prevent future tragedies by not giving the perpetrators what they want. They can refuse to publish the names or photos of the people who commit these crimes.
There is a growing body of research on the role played by the desire for celebrity among mass murderers. Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis, in an article that appeared in September in the journal American Behavioral Science, conclude that, based on a review of available evidence, “media coverage of mass shooters rewards them by making them famous, and provides a clear incentive for future offenders to attack.”
Their views represent the consensus among experts. Lankford and Madfis are among the signatories on an open letter, released last week and signed by 140 scholars and law enforcement professionals who have collectively studied mass murderers, urging the media not to use the names or photos of the perpetrators.
Many of the perpetrators of mass shootings make their desire for fame clear. The man who shot 19 people in Tucson, Ariz., including U.S. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, posted online before the shooting: “I’ll see you on National T.V.!” The 2016 Orlando nightclub shooter called a local news station during his attack, and checked social media to see if he had “gone viral.”
A sick contagion
To make matters worse, Lankford and Madfis point to evidence suggesting that fame-driven killers seek to maximize the number of their victims, in order to garner the most attention possible and to outdo their predecessors in what Dr. Steven Pitt, a forensic psychiatrist, calls “this hall of fame of mass murderers.” And the celebrity gained by these criminals also leads to what scholars call a contagion effect, where future perpetrators look to mass killers as role models.
Another scholar who has studied mass murder points out that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter studied the biographies of prior attackers and posted online: “Everyone knows that mass murderers are the cool kids.” And at least three subsequent mass killers have cited the Sandy Hook shooter as a role model.
There are a number of ways the media could improve on their current practices. For instance, they could report the initials and general information about the murderers, but refrain from giving the names. And if it is not feasible to avoid reporting the names, refusing to post the photographs of the killers would likely still be a marked improvement.
We live in a highly image-conscious culture where photographs have effects that usually far surpass words. People understandably are hungry for details about the killers that might explain their actions. General biographical details still could be published, along with other details of the incidents. The laudable desire of journalists to find the truth does not need to be impeded.
Incidents of mass violence always have many causes, and they will always require multiple solutions, including restrictions on firearm ownership and better mental-health services. We are not suggesting that changing how the media covers these events will make them stop, or that we should avoid implementing other useful measures. Nor do we imagine that the perpetrators’ names could be kept secret. There are too many sources of information on-line to make this possible.
But taking away the celebrity mass killers earn for themselves would likely make a significant difference. Lives could be saved. And it would not cost any money. It would take only a willingness on the part of the media to cover these events in a slightly different way.
The 2014 Isla Vista mass killer explained in his manifesto, “Infamy is better than total obscurity.” This is something we can refuse to give him.