Say the shooter’s name
Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin on Thursday night issued a direct request to the media following the mass killing at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. “I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act. . . . We would encourage media and the community to avoid using [the name]. We encourage you to not repeat it. We encourage you not to glorify and create sensationalism for him.”
A morning’s worth of televisionwatching on Friday suggested that the networks were indeed treading lightly. We didn’t see Chris Harper Mercer’s name or face showing up with any regularity — or maybe at all — on any of the main cable networks, and some hosts explicitly honored Hanlin’s request.
Like many other aspects of this mass shooting, this debate has become routine. Media organizations regularly agonize over how to deal with pleas like Hanlin’s. Usually the issue relates to the possibility of glorifying the killer and inspiring copycats, a huge debate that may never be resolved. A Yale University professor of psychiatry and law told The Post’s Paul Farhi after the Aurora killings: “We’re all susceptible to [media] influences, to a degree. It could be that someone is disgruntled enough and sees that he can go out in a big blast of fame.”
Meanwhile, Doris Fuller of the Treatment Advocacy Center told the Erik Wemple Blog: “Jared Loughner [charged in the January 2011 killings in Tucson] wasn’t copying anyone. He was acting on his own internal stimulation. [Seung Hui] Cho at Virginia Tech, the Fort Hood killings — these people weren’t copying someone else. They were acting on their own delusions and their own illness. . . . These people tend to have their own unique delusional worlds when they’re ill. One person is paranoid, one person thinks he can save the world.”
Mercer’s example would appear to bolster the case for those who favor keeping his name and photo off the air, given his apparent interest in the publicity that stems from mass murder.
Yet media organizations should name Mercer and show his photo whenever it’s relevant, and that happens to be quite frequently as this story unfolds. Cable news faces tough decisions on this front, owing to its 24/7 business model. Even on ho-hum days, it recycles ad nauseam the same stories, the same names, the same photographs. So keeping Mercer’s profile modest requires significant restraint.
But there’s a considerable journalistic imperative in retracing the steps of mass shooters. Serious biographical work can highlight breakdowns and missed opportunities. Consider James Holmes, who perpetrated the July 2012 Aurora, Colo., theater massacre. Recently unearthed documents indicate that a month before Holmes’s rampage, the head of his University of Colorado neuroscience graduate program had called campus police to report that Holmes had told a psychiatrist that he “wanted to kill people to make up for his failure in science.” Such reporting, of course, requires repeating Holmes’s name. Another example arises from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which student Cho killed 32 people and himself. Following the tragedy, official reports and news reports pieced together Cho’s interactions with the mental-health system, and actions followed.
For these reasons, deep investigation by news organizations into Mercer’s life is a public service, not some nefarious “glorification” quest. And yes, it’s more critical to stopping future shootings than “focusing on the victims.”