Say the shooter’s name

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Erik Wem­ple wash­ing­ton­­ple

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.”

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