Why news organizations have an ethical duty to name shooters

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)

  • Matt

    Saw this and hoped you’d post it. Apparently FBI director said they’re not using name to prevent his name from being glorified, and people who do this want to be glorified.

    Dear Mr. FBI director: How, in this case, do you know that the shooter wanted to be glorified, or would have seen that the use of his name, was glorifying him?

    The most powerful questions a journalist can ask after working to the who/what/where/when/why/how is “How do you know that?”

    • By saying something like “he just wanted attention,” you get to ignore other questions, like “Why did the FBI monitor him and then stop?”

      • Rob

        re: fbi – because incompetence?

        • I think the FBI is pretty competent. A more likely explanation is lack of resources. The FBI doesn’t have an infinite budget, so at some point, if a suspect hasn’t done anything to warrant continued monitoring, they have to shift their focus to the many other possible suspects to monitor.

          • The intelligence community is more than the FBI, keep in mind.

            I suspect that eventually, all the lids on domestic surveillance of Americans will be lifted.

            Someday, someone will wonder how the heck that happened.

        • Jeff R.

          Because there was no threat determined at the time?

          • It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping. There was no threat determined on the basis that he had sworn allegiance to both Shiite and Sunni terrorist groups, a terrorism non sequitur, apparently.

            Obviously, as it turns out, the threat was real. Authorities just couldn’t see how to see it.

          • Kassie

            Also, a guy who drinks alcohol at gay bars probably doesn’t fit your normal ISIS terrorist profile. But maybe that was the real threat, a man who couldn’t reconcile his religion with his sexuality.

  • MikeB

    There’s too much sanitizing already. If journalists do not want report the basics of a news story, it’s time for them to do something else.

  • brwgrl

    This seems to be yet another extension of the avoidance of anything that might make you uncomfortable. Another example from college campuses is trigger warnings. Rather than face the hard stuff, many people just close their eyes and ears and end up exacerbating the problem by becoming closed off from the real world.

    • Al

      I appreciate trigger warnings, though–they give you a chance to turn something off you’d rather not hear, before the news then proceeds to do its job and report the facts. A trigger warning isn’t censorship–it’s just a warning.

      • Al

        Like a graphic content warning before news that might not be appropriate for kids–same principle: Something you might find viscerally disturbing is coming up; here’s your chance to turn the channel.

        • Kassie

          Exactly, trigger warnings are a totally different thing. It is just polite to let someone know you are about to talk about sexual assault so someone who has been assaulted can choose not to hear if they know they will be upset or inflame their PTSD.

          • Trigger warnings have their place although once an anchor reads a lede that says, “50 people are dead when a gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando,” there’s still a warning needed. I think it’s pretty obvious that if you don’t want to be upset, turn the station right then.

            There’s no part of a story like this that isn’t traumatic.

        • brwgrl

          Absolutely – when trigger warnings are used to give a heads up that content may not be appropriate for some viewers then it makes sense. When it doesn’t make sense is when it allows people to avoid dealing with difficult issues because it’s hard. I may be a bit biased because I see 19 year old college students saying that they don’t want to learn about something because it’s hard to hear.

          • Al

            I see where you’re coming from, but I think our right to talk about hard topics (like rape) doesn’t supercede their right not to engage (by leaving after an appropriately placed trigger warning).

          • Totally agree. I think people need that choice.

  • Alex Friedrich

    Agreed. The practice withholding of names by police and news outlets is open to abuse. It’s better for us to know who is in jail for what so that we can hold public safety officials accountable for what happens to them.

  • kcmarshall

    Early contender for post of the year, Bob!

    • essjayok

      Agree! Classic Bob, and a huge reason why NewsCut is my primary news source. Thank you for this eloquent and well-done work, Bob!

  • Al

    Again, why I’m an MPR member. And why I don’t watch the evening local news. There’s a vast chasm there, largely revolving around reporting newsworthy news.

  • Jeff

    Yes, some people are making the argument that reporting the name of a shooter/terrorist glorifies that individual and could incite others to follow their lead and possibly cause more people to commit such an act. There are studies that show that this is true when it comes to suicides and school shootings…but we have the 1st Amendment and in America we simply have to deal with those negative effects that might happen in our free society. I might remind everyone that we also have a 2nd Amendment, interpreted by the SCOTUS to be an individual right to bear arms…the 1st and 2nd Amendment rights should be recognized by all citizens as rights that may have negative effects but that’s the cost of living in our free society.

    • The “studies” on school shootings/suicides is a little more complex. The mere mention of it does not necessarily lead to the copycat (or “contagion” as it’s called). Unfortunately, many news organizations don’t report suicide on the assumption that it does. But that’s not what people like SAVE said. What they said is emphasizing the method, for example, can contribute to it and the glorification of it, can lead to it.

      But I suspect there was never any real consideration of what “glorification” even means so many news organizations just decided to punt and said ‘we don’t report suicides.”

      How did that work out? Well, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in Minnesota and there isn’t a lot of attention paid to it and guess why that is?

      It’s hard for me to fathom how mentioning the name of the shooter would be the final straw in a copycat scenario. I find it absurd to believe that someone compelled to shoot up a bar would somehow be less inclined to do so if they hadn’t heard a guy’s name.

      But I’m willing to listen to an argument about why the guy’s name constitutes “glorification.”

      • Jeff

        Hey, I agree with you on this issue…I don’t see it as glorification to simply report the name or investigate the person…but some people do and that’s their thought process. I have a grandfather who committed suicide, before I was born and my family doesn’t really talk about it unless one of the cousins asks questions about it. Whether or not that effects people committing suicide, I have no idea…maybe we need more studies. But in the end, I think any negative effects of our free society shouldn’t limit us in how we function or react to these events…go ahead and report freely, I’m not going to stop you or attack you for reporting the facts.

  • dnarex

    I suppose if KARE ever does a story on the Lincoln assassination, they will be sure that the name John Wilkes Booth never gets mentioned. Maybe they should stop mentioning Bashar al-Assad or Kim Jong-Un in their news stories. What a stupid thing to do.
    As for glorifying the killer, I think the public is much more likely to vilify him. Basically, not naming the perpetrator protects him.

  • Rob

    under the “ostrich” principle of journalism, It would seem to follow that if the shooter isn’t named, his image should also be withheld…

    • The “why” of this is only going to come from one place — the guy who did it.

  • PaulJ

    Naming the guy doesn’t mean harping on the name. The 24 hour news stations and outlets that read the AP wire every 1/2 hour don’t have to keep repeating the name.

    • I don’t watch cable news and I recommend if people are finding information repeated too often, they’re probably watching an overabundance of it.

      That’s a choice they have to make.

  • Mike Worcester

    We’ve seen this action taken before by law enforcement agencies (I believe the Aurora theatre shootings was one example) and news outlets were split on that approach also. To me, naming the shooter does not in itself glorify them or make them a celebrity. Not naming them though just leads people to seek out the name on their own, and in an age of easy access to information it is not difficult.

    As for KARE-11, I found their statement to be quite condescending; as if we news consumers are too dumb and will think that giving evil a name and face is dangerous.

    • We throw out things like “we will not give in to hate”, and then we become afraid to name it.

      That’s giving in to hate.

      • MikeB

        And not using the name of the shooter makes it easier to forget, to mentally sweep this away down the memory hole

  • Jim G

    News organizations should always name the shooter. Get the answers to the who, what, where, when, and why this man was motivated to kill. Why questions about this horrific shooting that I haven’t seen adequately answered yet by our media is why it took three hours for the police to enter the Pulse and kill this guy. I thought that the lesson learned from Columbine was to immediately engage the shooter. Why wasn’t this tactic applied in Orlando? How many victims died as he walked around and shot the wounded? How many died during the three hours it took to engage him because they bled out? Is this a contributing reason for the high death toll?

  • Leann Olsen

    I appreciate the clarification you give the subject here. I do understand individuals who want to offer up their own opinions and choose to not name the attacker. I’m thinking of one of my favorite podcasts that will have many things to say on this topic. He chooses to only name the victims and to shed light on the problems/issue leading up to the attack. People easily forget the distinction between journalism and opinion.

  • Cantewaste Win

    Bob, Thank you for your coverage and opinions, I appreciate them. Is there a reason that the news is not mentioning Wounded Knee as the worst mass shooting in U.S. History?

    • Jeff

      Probably because it was a military operation between 2 different nations…it was a tragedy either way.

      • davidG

        There wasn’t much in the way of mikitary operations on the Native American side.

        Other than that, I would agree.

        • Jeff

          Does Battle of Little Bighorn ring a bell? Also known as Custer’s Last Stand…

          • Jay Sieling

            Battle of Little Bighorn was in 1876. Wounded Kneed massacre was in 1890. Two very separate histories.

          • Rob

            little bighorn was a battle between armed combatants. wounded knee, not so much.

          • Jeff

            The incident started when an armed man didn’t understand what was going on and refused to give up his FIREARM…but many of the victims were unarmed.

    • NPR dug into their decision to label it as such today:

      I called Grant Duwe, the director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, for a second opinion. Duwe wrote one of the most exhaustive histories of mass murder in the United States.

      He said the phrase we use is serviceable.

      He says he sees two distinctions between mass murders that occurred before and after the 20th century. Before 1900, most mass murders were perpetrated by the “haves” against the “have nots.” After 1900, mass murders began being perpetrated by the “have nots” against the “haves.” Another difference is that before the 20th century, few mass murders were perpetrated by a single person.

      A gunman opening fire on a public space is what “mass shooting” has come to mean these days, Duwe said. We don’t tend to put massacres involving military or quasi-military actors and those perpetrated by a group in that category.

      By that definition — a shooting that takes place in a public space and does not involve another crime like robbery — what happened in Orlando is the deadliest of the 178 public mass shootings Duwe has counted since the early 1900s.


      • Kassie

        Whoa! Super interesting. I was wondering about Wounded Knee, but also some of the others listed in the post. Thanks for linking.

    • Jerry

      You could also go with the Mountain Meadows Massacre.


      • Kassie

        That’s the one that’s been on my mind, having read a book about Mormonism lately.

    • John A-G

      Perhaps because the Battle of Gettysburg was the worst prolonged massed shooting in US history. Counting the missing, 51,000 casualties.

      And banning muzzle loading rifles probably wouldn’t have been considered as a response. President Lincoln remained focused on his goal: Maintain the Union and eliminate the enslavement of humans within it.

  • lindblomeagles

    I’m not convinced one way or the other. China has censored the Internet for sometime, so there is a way it could be done. I would wonder who is in charge of the censoring and what information would be withheld from us and why. Obviously the media and American citizens always LEAPS to terrorism anytime an Arabic gunman opens fire long before facts are found out. From that standpoint, I agree with KARE 11. Let’s gather the facts first instead of giving Americans, as Trump demonstrated Sunday and Monday, another means of displaying their ugly prejudices. If it isn’t responsible journalism to withhold names from the public, then the media should rush to equally frightening assumptions about white gunmen who mass murder innocent Americans instead of quoting us the “innocent until proven guilty” line that accompanies them. Did you know the FBI hasn’t found a terror link yet between Omar Mateen and the San Bernardino shooters? In fact, outside of 911, the FBI hasn’t found any associations with ISIS among America’s Arabic gunmen. Of course, that rarely gets reported by our responsible journalists.

    • // If it isn’t responsible journalism to withhold names from the public, then the media should rush to equally frightening assumptions about white gunmen who mass murder innocent Americans instead of quoting us the “innocent until proven guilty” line that accompanies them

      What you’re advocating is the obliterating facts because of the danger of ideas — particularly wrong ones.

      This is dangerous territory.

      The facts aren’t wrong; that’s what makes them facts. The ideas that spring from the facts, the conclusions… that’s another story, but that’s also another issue.

      For one thing, taking a stand not to name a name carries with it, often, it’s own idea — that he was merely out for attention. He may have been; he may not have been.

      Donald Trump right now is trying the same thing, having denied the Washington Post credentials to his campaign stops because he didn’t like the reporting that it did.

      We saw the same sort of intimidation against Mukhtar Ibrahim of MPR because he dared tell the story of Somalis, caught up in the federal probe of ISIS recruitment.

      It’s chilling and it’s only a step that becomes easier after the first one.

      This sort of thinking is the first one.

      If we talk about standing up to these sorts of things, we don’t do so by getting scared of facts.

  • John A-G

    You continue to force my eyes wide open when my natural reflex is to squint to see as little as possible…Thanks, Bob. You may be a curmudgeon, but you are one darn insightful one. Keep on doing the job you do so well.

  • John Vincent

    I think this borders on oversimplification, and may unintentionally paint an unfair picture of some people involved.

    The idea of not naming suspects is not new, so to paint the idea as a mere reaction to Facebook pressure is probably not accurate.

    On -my- Facebook feed, KARE 11’s Rena Sarigianopoulos, made her statement about not naming the shooter well before the upwell in local Facebook demand. Not because of it.

    Do you really think that the motivation is “protecting” the audience “from important facts and context?” I think if we apply Occam’s razor, the offered reason — not glorifying the killer — wins.

    News media, especially television, takes a lot of heat for “sensationalism.” They are often blamed for glorifying shooters by showing them again and again — or for showing the same images repeatedly. It is fair for businesses to try to prevent any real damage they might cause. I think it is also fair for humans to want to do something, anything to prevent this kind of atrocity. Acting on that urge in the workplace is another conversation — but, again, that’s a more reasonable explanation than caving in to the Facebook crowd.

    We know that fame motivates some shooters, and I believe not teaching that lesson to the next would-be murderer has value. I say bravo to news outlets that experiment with idea of denying fame seekers fame. Frankly, I think if our society denied notoriety to fame seekers of every stripe, we’d be in a better place.

    Again, not naming the killer is not a new idea — and it is also an idea that has never taken root. I suspect that we’ll see fits and starts of total bans on naming suspects, and news outlets will settle on a more nuanced approach,,

    As for the censorship idea. Yeah, that’s nonsense.