In far too many situations we see the identity of killers go viral in the media as the names of victims go unnoticed and are often forgotten.
Is the way the news reports on these tragedies part of the key to stopping them?
Police across the United States are attempting to end the influx of public attention that mass shooters get after committing these terrible acts.
“We’re going to mention his name once, and then he will be forever referred to as ‘the suspect’ because our focus now is the dignity and respect to the victims in this case and to their families,” said Chief James A. Cervera following the deadly shooting in Virginia Beach last week.
Here are the names of the 12 people slain in a mass shooting in Virginia Beach on Friday https://t.co/w2Ov0ygvD5
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) June 1, 2019
Instead, officials have begun referring to them as “the suspect,” “the perpetrator,” or in this case, the “13th person”.
Mass killers deserve no glory. They deserve no 15 minutes of fame. They deserve no time in the public spotlight.
So why do we continue to give it to them?
Other law enforcement officials in the past have attempted to downplay the shooter’s identity.
“I will not say his name,” said Timothy Altomare, Chief of the Anne Arundel County Police Department after the shooting at the Capital Gazette office in Maryland last year.
“I refuse to do it. I wish you wouldn’t do it. But I know better,” he said during a press briefing. “He doesn’t deserve us to talk about him one more second.”
After a gunman burst into a nightclub in Orlando and tragically took the lives of 49 people, FBI Director at the time, James Comey, refused to speak about the name of the killer.
“You will notice that I’m not using the killer’s name and I will try not to do that,” Mr. Comey said, before explaining his reasoning: “Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory. And I don’t want to be part of that for the sake of the victims and their families. And so that other twisted minds don’t think that this is a path to fame and recognition.”
A survivor in Friday's mass shooting in Virginia Beach recounts the shooting and how her co-worker Keith Cox led her and her colleagues to safety before he was shot and killed.https://t.co/hZPvq7TfJ2
— The Virginian-Pilot (@virginianpilot) June 2, 2019
In 2017 when a gunman opened fire on a Sutherland Springs church, the media found much of the same reaction from local authorities.
“We do not want to glorify him and what he has done,” said Freeman Martin of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
When an armed man shot four people, killing one in a synagogue in April, the DA withheld the shooter’s name. “We want to be clear that this sort of hate, and hateful crimes, will not be tolerated,” Summer Stephan said after the attack. “And this is why I’m not going to even mention his name.”
The change in the way we report these tragedies could also help prevent them in the future, some say. Details about the killer, the way they planned and carried out an act, how they were apprehended or taken down… these are all key pieces of information that a future killer could use and study. Copycat killers and troubled individuals might take that information and use it to create more carnage at a future attack.
The New York Times published that while law enforcement officials once believed that the most important information they could provide to the public was the identity of the suspected perpetrator, the attention now is on not humanizing someone who may inspire another.
In 2012, following the deadly theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, parents of victim Alex Teves took to social media to attempt to downplay the shooter’s name and instead focus on the lives that were lost. #NoNotoriety made its way through social media and was even endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the International Police Association.
“In the past, we were trying to do all the right things, cooperating with the media to get information out there, and a certain shooting would get associated with a certain individual’s name,” a chief in Washington said about how Virginia Beach was handling their briefings. “But there is now a consensus that that is not the appropriate route to go.”
The idea is not 100 percent agreed on, however.
“Not saying his name is not going to take away anything that happened,” said Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was killed in the 2015 attack on a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Ms. Risher said that she makes certain to mention the gunman’s name because people “need to know who he is and when this name comes up, the evil this person caused.”
Is the way officers are handling these situations going lead us to a world with less attacks on innocent members of our communities? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s worth a shot.