I don’t use this blog to comment on issues outside of the news media, so I won’t address the gun-control debate that has come after the elementary-school shootings in Connecticut, but one that I first came across last night through a conservative friend’s post on Facebook, and which I subsequently came across multiple times, is the argument that the media should refrain from ever again using the name or photos of a mass killer because that would rob him of the infamy he craves.
(Among the places I have seen this are the website created by a mass-shooting victim’s family; Steve Buttry’s blog; and by David Brooks in a segment of NPR’s Dec. 14 “All Things Considered.”)
I’m sympathetic to the argument, but ultimately I think it would be futile, for three reasons.
First, the one thing that people on all sides of the gun debate would agree on is that the people who have carried out mass killings are deeply unhinged. Is the argument, then, that although they are unhinged, they will pause in their determination to kill, put down their guns and go home quietly once they realize they won’t get their name on the national news? Explain that to me. Even if a craving for infamy is part of their motivation, and I think that’s an open question, you’re assuming a crazed mind can draw the straight line from a national boycott on that publicity to the futility of seeking that publicity.
Second, how exactly is this boycott to be carried out? As anyone in any news organization can tell you, the news media are as organized and monolithic as a herd of cats. In my last job, I couldn’t even get the editors at four newspapers in the same company that had a congressional district in common to have just one reporter instead of four do the quarterly story on the district’s campaign finance reports. How you could convince even the majority of major national news organizations – let alone not just the broadcast and 24-hour cable networks and all of the nation’s largest papers but ALL. OF. THEM, down to the smallest of the hundreds of mainstream print, broadcast and online news outlets that are out there – is beyond me.
Which leads me to the third, decisive reason: A huge number of people don’t really want you to keep the killer’s name secret, no matter what they think right now. My conservative friend asked me my take on the media’s role in this and other news events, and my take on the media’s role is that people get the media they deserve, which is demonstrated by the media they choose. (For instance, if you want to live in a world where science is optional and math doesn’t matter, there are outlets for that.) What the media does at a time of tragedy is try to answer the questions that the typical person has; if we don’t answer them, we get calls and email asking why, and people will seek out media that answer those questions. In greatly simplified terms, the nature of a free market drives media to answer those questions in order to retain audience, which pleases advertisers. If even one news outlet uses the name, that organization will see a surge in its audience, and one by one others will wonder why they are withholding a name that is rapidly becoming common knowledge.
In the 1990s, the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal ran a story revisiting a decades-old killing in which a woman took her young children down to a creek and one by one drowned them. It was chilling and riveting. Among the calls that came in to the newsroom was one by a woman complaining that the whole story was so awful it never should have been printed. The veteran reporter who answered the phone asked the woman, “Ma’am, did you read the story?” She answered firmly, as if scolding him, “I read every single word of it.” He replied, “Then you must have really enjoyed the story.” She hung up on him – but he was right.