Why it’s OK to name a mass murderer

Among the more dispiriting debates for journalists in recent years is the one that’s picked up steam in the last few days: Should news organizations name the man who opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week. His name, by the way, was Chris Harper-Mercer.

This should be a no-brainer.

It’s the job of news to give you facts. The fact is Chris Harper-Mercer opened fire at a community college in Oregon. That fact doesn’t diminish any of the people who died, nor does it glorify his action, nor does it give him satisfaction in his effort to go out in a big way. He’s dead. He’s got no satisfaction. And in a few weeks, perhaps sooner, his name will hardly ring a bell with people.

Still, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen refused to name him today in her post about why NPR should.

She acknowledges that “some have argued that not naming the person will indeed remove a motivation for would-be copycats,” an assertion that only reaches a level of credibility if you believe someone with a mind to commit such a horrendous act is capable of that kind of logical thinking while deciding whether to go ahead with it.

Listener Betsey Wolfson, of Northampton, Mass., wrote: “After another horrible mass shooting this week, one of the officials in Oregon had the sense to refuse to name the shooter. Then NPR went ahead and named the shooter — more than once. We all must STOP naming the shooters in these crimes. If part of their motivation is notoriety, then maybe the lack of notoriety will reduce the chance that the next crazy guy will do the same crazy thing.”

Let’s just think about that for a second. Quick: Name the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary. The chances are pretty good that you don’t recall that it’s Adam Lanza. But you remember what Adam Lanza did.

This belief about copycats, by the way, is also the reason you have no idea how many high school kids take their own lives in Minnesota every year. The media doesn’t tell you in the belief it would lead to copycat suicides. And yet, kids keep taking their own lives.

I asked Mark Memmott, NPR’s standards and practices editor, for a response. “I don’t think any news organization wants to glamorize what the person has done,” he said, “but it’s a fundamental question about the event: Who did it?” And knowing who did it helps a news organization explore why the event happened, and whether it could have been prevented, he said, adding, “All those questions that go with the name.”

Even so, Memmott said, “I think everybody, including us, is probably thinking about how much attention you should give, and that’s a very interesting question. I do think we try not to saturate the coverage with details of the attacker.” Moreover, he added, “We do want to tell the stories of the victims, survivors, first responders and heroes, as well.”

And nothing prevented NPR — or any other news organization — from doing that.

Frankly, there should be more alarm when news organizations consider participating in a popular movement to satisfy readers and listeners, many of whom are hardly calling upon research for their solutions.

The most important question a news story can answer is “why”. That’s where a name comes in.

For me, that “why” is the key word. Despite the tragic similarities, not every shooting is exactly the same, and there is a heated political debate in this country over how gun laws and mental health screening play into what has sadly become a repeat story. Calling the killer a “26-year-old white male student” is not enough to help the rest of us understand what happened and why. Identifying the shooter by name is part of unraveling a story and helping place it in the larger context of many shootings. Does this one fit a pattern? Is it an aberration? Did authorities overlook something that could have stopped the attack? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to help prevent yet another mass killing?

Some have argued that not naming the person will indeed remove a motivation for would-be copycats. Some killers do crave attention, of course, but not every shooter in recent years has seemingly fit that pattern of self-aggrandizement.

Jensen never said why she didn’t use the name of the shooter in this afternoon’s column, pointing only to an NPR blog post yesterday which revealed details about Harper-Mercer without using his name.

“I don’t think the story suffered for it,” she said.

She’s wrong. We all suffer when news organizations withhold pertinent information either in the pursuit an agenda or in the playing of a patriarchal role that treats an intelligent audience as children, incapable of operating the on/off button.

“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’s Kelly McBride wrote last week.

“It’s worse when they try to leverage public grief as a form of social pressure on news organizations to subtract journalism from their stories about such incidents,” a commenter noted. “But it’s an embarrassment to the craft that a few journalists have embraced the campaign.”