Do Media Have a Role in Preventing Mass Murders?

In her address to New Zealand’s Parliament shortly after the recent mosque attacks in that country that left 50 worshippers dead and another 50 injured, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to identify the white supremacist murderer. She said: “He will, when I speak, be nameless … And to others, I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name … [of] the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

It was an eloquent endorsement of an approach to terror that has been debated for many years: that, since any mass shooters, whatever their declared political or racial motivations, also seem to crave the fame their murderous deeds will yield them, their names should not be used.

And there are indeed researchers who argue that, without the publicity granted to mass murderers, there would be fewer of them.

University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford, for instance, who has studied hundreds of mass shootings, found that many such killers have three things in common — access to high-powered weapons, suicidal thoughts, and strong desires for fame.

Propelling one’s name and image onto front pages, he contends, “is the only way in America for an average person without exceptional skills or luck to guarantee himself or herself fame.”

A criminologist, Professor Lankford notes that the United States, which has more mass shootings than any other nation, not only leads the world in the number of guns and gun owners and is experiencing a rising suicide rate, but evidences an obsession with celebrity and fame.

Addressing issues like mental illness or gun rights is a daunting challenge. The quest for fame, though, perhaps less so. And so, last year, the professor co-authored a letter calling on media companies to refrain from naming perpetrators of mass violence. About 150 other researchers also signed the document. So far, the idea, while widely discussed, has not achieved significant traction. But it has returned to the societal front burner in the wake of recent attacks like the one on a Pittsburgh congregation and the New Zealand mosque attacks.

Back in 2016, several French news organizations in fact decided to no longer publish photographs of people responsible for terrorist killings, to avoid what they characterized as bestowing “posthumous glorification” on Islamist killers.

The French influential daily Le Monde made the case that all elements of society had to be involved in the struggle against terrorism, and that media organizations had their own special role to play.

Even if that sentiment were endorsed by American media, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would preclude any governmental role in preventing names or photographs of mass murderers from being offered to the public. Such choices would have to be achieved by an informal social contract between media and consumers.

And it would not be effective in preventing disclosure of information or photos of mass-murderers. In these times, information withheld by mainstream media can be obtained fairly easily from online sources less disturbed by the possibility of feeding the fantasies of mass murderers. And no one seriously imagines that mass murders will end with the media’s decision to omit the names of such crimes’ perpetrators.

What’s more, and even more troubling, those perpetrators no longer need journalists to spread their names and ideologies. They are entirely capable of doing it themselves, as in the case of the recent mosque attacker, who “livestreamed” his actions, and whose video record of his murders was distributed via social media to millions of people.

Whether or not the idea of omitting the names of terrorists gains support in American society, what is surely reasonable is the suggestion that, in the inevitable news reports and features that follow mass murders, the names and images of the perpetrators not be offered again and again. Doing so only serves, even unintentionally, to provide him a larger degree of the infamy he may crave.

But, in the end, of course, whatever boundaries are set regarding publicizing the names, images and thoughts of heinous actors like those who have increasingly become part of the news cycle, terrorism will not yield to media choices.

The rotten roots of extremist violence, whether racial, political or religious, must themselves be relentlessly confronted by government, institutions and individuals, and exposed loudly and clearly for the evils they are.