Why news organizations have an ethical duty to name shooters

Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP

The coverage of the aftermath of the mass killing in Orlando is following a well-worn path; we’ve gotten pretty good at developing the template in these sorts of things.

We’ve now reached the “don’t name the shooter” portion of the story.

“Instead of vowing to avoid the name of the shooter, journalists would be better off promising to use the name responsibly, to tell the stories of the victims completely and to refrain from publishing poorly-sourced information that has a higher likelihood of being wrong,” Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride said after a shooting late last year.

That ethic has been rejected locally by KARE 11 which has announced in an email to staff that it will no longer name the gunman.

Anchor Rena Sarigianopoulos explained why in a Facebook post.

His name was Omar Mateen and I tell you that because I’m in the journalism business and that’s the job we have, and I don’t really care if the Facebook crowd wants to be shielded from facts of a story.

The basic elements of journalism are pretty simple — who, what, why, when, where, and how. It’s not the job of any news organization to shield you from any of those facts unless they don’t trust their own ability to responsibly report them.

Like this one, for example. How does a man grow up to hate gays enough to slaughter them?

That’s the sort of story that might anger some people. That’s why your TV comes with an on/off switch. It’s an inelegant solution that’s still a better alternative to journalists who’ve taken it upon themselves to protecting you from important facts and context. Like: “why?

The answer to that question is usually pretty complicated.

NPR’s Ari Shapiro had an incredibly insightful observation that doesn’t fit the Facebook School of Journalism: The massacre cannot be easily characterized, he said.

It’s the worst mass shooting in history which looks at this through the lens of gun violence. It’s also the worst terrorist attack since 9/11, which looks at this through the lens of terrorism. You can look at it through the lens of LGBT issues, in an attack on a gay nightclub. You can look at it through the lens of ethnic identity; many of the victims were Hispanic.

And because of that, it becomes really complicated to tell this story in a way that is comprehensive and incorporates all those different aspects of it.

All those different aspects of it. That’s a professional journalist at work right there.

Last night, WCCO asked on its Good Question segment, “Why Can’t We Block Terror Groups From The Internet?”

[blink, blink] What?

The answer to that question is a pretty simple one. Because we’re an open society. Next question?

Granted, complicated stories aren’t exactly in the wheelhouse of some news organizations, but the fact that any news organization is even considering withholding access to information from people should frighten us all.

The assertion that journalists are naming Mateen because if they don’t, someone else will is shallow and absurd. This is not the time for journalists to join a mob for some easy Facebook “likes.”

It’s time for them to take a deep breath and do their jobs.

Related: Naming The Shooter: Why NPR Should Identify The Suspect (NPR)

Shooter Omar Mateen’s father says he’s saddened by massacre, calls gunman ‘a good son’ (Washington Post)

More journalism: How the Orlando Sentinel, with a third of the staff it once had, covered the country’s deadliest mass shooting (Poynter)