To name or not to name—this is the dilemma that has sent people into a frenzy in the days since the cold-blooded mass shooting at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1. Since the crime’s lead investigator John Hanlin publicly announced his refusal to speak of the gunman’s name and urged the media to do the same, the thin fabric that is the media-audience relationship has not been the same.
“Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter,” Hanlin announced at a press conference on Oct. 2. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”
Every known detail of an act of mass destruction should be revealed to the public. Not only do people have the right to know what is going on in their community but they also should be aware of these incidents to equip themselves with knowledge and skills to combat future occurrences.
Although the name of the gunman has already been made public knowledge by the media outlets that have chosen to publish it, there is the question of whether details about the culprits in horrifying crimes like these are necessary and if they have any effect on the probability of copycat crimes.
Think about it: why is history such an important part of today’s society? By analyzing past events—good and bad—that have occurred in the world, people can learn how these incidents happened and how to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.
The main concern of the anti-naming camp is that the media glorifies and glamorizes mass shooters, giving rise to copycat crimes. But there is a difference between reporting a criminal’s name and examining their life prior to crime or portraying them positively.
In Aug. 2013, one of the Boston Marathon bombers graced the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine, a coveted spot usually reserved for celebrities and idols. As expected, controversy arose as the magazine received criticism for portraying a murderer as a hero.
This is, however, an example of judging a book by its cover. Between the cover pages lay an insightful article that broke down every aspect of the bomber’s life, giving those affected by the incident as well as the general public a chance to search for the answers they needed.
Not naming a criminal is not the way to end crime. It is, in fact, the most important detail that needs to be reported. Even though the criminal’s name may not be familiar to most people, it helps to look into their pre-crime life and look for warning signs that may have been missed.
Now that people know the name of the Umqua shooter, more details of his life and internet activity are beginning to unravel. A post on online message board 4chan believed to have been posted by the shooter was found to warn people not to “go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest.”
That warning was not taken seriously, but now that the public is aware of it, future warnings on the internet are likely to be taken more seriously and investigated as a threat.
“The names are a matter of public record, and reporting names eliminates the possibility of rumors spreading about who the person involved may or may not be,” Associated Press Standards Editor Thomas Kent told ABC News.
Before the identities of the Boston Marathon bombers were released, rumors circulated online that a man named Sunil Tripathi had committed the crime. Although it was later discovered that Tripathi, who had been missing at the time, was dead, the abuse that his family and friends received online had already done a lifetime of damage.
The media usually takes the brunt of the blame for inspiring copycat crimes through its coverage. However, a 2002 report in the Crime and Delinquency journal on copycat crime among juvenile offenders found that media consumption had little impact on the likelihood of a juvenile attempting to commit a copycat crime. Factors such as history of criminal records, mental health and a history of violence played a bigger role in influencing copycat crimes than the media.
It is the responsibility of the media to convey information to the masses. It is unfair and unethical to ask journalists and reporters to leave out important details such as the perpetrator’s name—it equates to censorship and quashes their right to free speech.
“Reporting on tragedy is a painful, ugly business. But facts matter to an informed debate,” wrote Garrett Haake of WUSA. “When law enforcement fails to provide the facts, or journalists fail to report them, we cheat ourselves out of the hard debates and discussions that should follow such appalling violence.”
There is always going to be good news and bad news in this world. Reporting bad news always requires a lot more sensitivity, but it should never compromise one’s journalistic integrity.
Coverage of mass shootings are, contrary to popular belief, not deliberately created to add salt to the wound. They are instead meant to stir up debate and bring up important issues that society needs to face and tackle. Gun control is an example of such a debate that has arisen from mass shootings.
More people are starting to realize that there are not as many preventive measures against mass school shootings as there should be. The shooting at Umpqua Community College was the 45th school shooting in the U.S. in 2015—which rings up a shocking statistic of at least one school shooting per week nationwide.
In the aftermath of the Umpqua shootings, the Democrats of the U.S. Senate have already made plans to tighten gun control and regulate gun sales. Even though the proposal did not pass, they vow to keep pushing the reform until it goes through.
The public is entitled to public knowledge. Let the media do its job and inform, educate and empower the public.