Editorial: Why use a mass shooter’s name?
We name names.
The goal of journalism is to disseminate information. We find out who made a decision, who bought a business, who staged a protest, who won a prize, who died in a crash, who saved a life. And we name names.
There are times that we pull the punch.
We protect children. We protect rape victims. We may, on occasion, protect a source if the information is more important than the name, but, to be honest, we don’t like anonymous sources any more than the public does, so that is rare.
But when people are accused of a crime, they are not protected. If you are charged with stealing from the school district, we name you. If you are prosecuted for assaulting a child, we name you. If police say you caused a crash while driving drunk, we name you.
As mass shootings become more and more common, some people want us to stop using the names of the shooters.
“A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment,” Adam Lankford, University of Alabama criminologist, said in a recent AP story.
The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has vowed she will never speak the name of the man who murdered 50 people in two Christchurch mosques last week.
Families of victims have noted that their loved ones’ names are lost in the blur of coverage while the shooters — whether arrested or killed — are always remembered. That has to be acid on the raw nerves of their grief.
But is silence on the shooters’ names the right call?
We cannot ignore the shootings, and the shootings don’t happen in a vacuum. To cover the event without naming the perpetrator or the accused is to talk about the destruction of New Orleans without mentioning Hurricane Katrina. It is noting the collapse of the Twin Towers but disregarding the planes. It is a catastrophe out of context.
If we applied this rule to the Tree of Life shooting, our coverage would end as the memorials disappeared. How do we cover the prosecution of a ghost we can’t name? The victims deserve justice, and there is no justice without truth. The community deserves accountability, and there can’t be accountability behind a veil.
What we can do is strive for honesty. For a lack of glorification. For attention on the fallen. For commitment to find answers to how a tragedy happened and how another might be prevented.
But we name names.