News media respond to call to limit naming of perpetrators in mass shootings

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Thomas J. Hrach, University of Memphis

(THE CONVERSATION) The day after a man opened fire at a grocery store in Collierville, Tennessee, killing one person and injuring 13 others before turning the gun on himself, local police held a conference of impromptu press to identify the author.

But instead of saying the suspect’s name out loud on that sunny September morning in 2021, Collierville Police Lt. David Townsend held up a piece of yellow paper with the name “Uk Thang” and date of birth “10 -17-91”.

Nothing else was said about the suspect at the press conference other than that he was a “third-party supplier” for the store. Later reports determined that he was the franchise operator of the store’s sushi counter, but was not a Kroger employee.

This press conference has become typical of how law enforcement has responded after mass shootings: never mention the suspect’s name and never offer much information about the person. The aim is to encourage the news media to avoid using the author’s name and thus depriving the author of publicity. As my research has shown, over the past 10 years, the news media has followed suit by reducing the number of times a mass shooter’s name is reported.

Now that the suspect has been arrested, it will be interesting to see how the media handles the release of the name of the alleged perpetrator of the April 12, 2022 Brooklyn subway shooting. Many mass shootings end when the suspects turn the guns on themselves or are killed by police. The Brooklyn suspect initially eluded capture, so police released the name as part of efforts to arrest him.

But is reducing the number of times the abuser’s name is used in news stories in the public interest? It certainly diminishes the notoriety of the author and reduces any incentive to become famous.

Yet when the name is not used, other more relevant details, such as the person’s motivations and background, may also not be reported.

Change came in 2012

I became interested in the issue after several high-profile mass shooting perpetrators were not named aloud by police following the attacks. And it seems the media has followed suit.

I analyzed how often perpetrators were named in news articles in the week following mass shootings between 1999 and 2021.

The research, as yet unpublished, examined media coverage of mass shootings beginning with the Columbine High School murders in 1999 and ending with the Indianapolis FedEx Center murders in 2021. My findings confirmed what research had shown: the more deaths there were, the more news there were. the reports used the author’s name. This was true for the whole period.

But there was a turning point in 2012. Given the number of people killed in a mass shooting, the number of times the media used the perpetrators’ names in news stories began to decline.

After a July 2012 mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater, relatives of the victims asked the state governor not to mention the perpetrator’s name at a memorial service where the victims’ names would be read. Victim advocates and family members wanted to give the killer no publicity, fearing notoriety was one of the attacker’s motives.

The governor’s public remarks only referred to the shooter as “Suspect A”. Later that year, the mass shooting of elementary school children and school staff in Newtown, Connecticut shocked the nation. In this case, the name of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was widely publicized in the news.

The decision to avoid naming the perpetrators of the mass shootings is based on the idea that people who engage in mass shootings do so out of a desire for publicity. Certainly, there is anecdotal evidence that some mass shooters use the media to gain notoriety through their attacks. The 2007 Virginia Tech shooter broke off his killing spree to send photos of himself to NBC News. The 2014 Isla Vista shooter posted a manifesto on YouTube before he started killing.

Is there a risk of not knowing?

News organizations can certainly dig deep into the backgrounds of mass shooters without ever naming the person. My research did not determine whether the reduction in the number of times a mass shooter is named was related to the reduction in coverage of mass shooter backgrounds and motivations. But the name is concrete and basic information about a person.

Proponents of not naming authors argue that the less the authors are written, spoken, or known, the better. It also eliminates any incentive for perpetrators to become famous as a result of such horrific acts. Whether this tendency to reduce the denomination of mass shooters is helping to reduce mass shootings or perhaps making them more likely is not something my research can determine.

Mass shootings happen for a host of reasons. Two of the most discussed reasons are the lax gun laws in the United States and the lack of mental health services. Some say they are unavoidable random events that cannot be stopped.

It is not yet known how much of a factor notoriety is for would-be shooters. But we know the news media is heeding the call to limit the naming of perpetrators in mass shootings.

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