It’s impossible to say whether any copycat mass shootings were prevented because public officials and media organizations have been making deliberate decisions to not give killers the notoriety and celebrity they craved.
But it’s likely that this approach has helped, and it certainly has done no harm.
A recent article by Associated Press writer Lisa Marie Pane looked at this issue, specifically noting that it is not easy to stem the spread of shooters’ names because of social media.
Agreed. In a free society, where the government can’t — and should not — control the flow of information, that’s a reality.
Therefore, it falls on public officials and mainstream media to act responsibly. That means law enforcement must release the name of the suspects and relevant information on their background. The information that sheds light on the situation, and does not intentionally create harm, should be reported. Again, that decision should be left to the individual news organization based on its audience. A name would be important, at least initially, in that specific community but not statewide or nationally.
This type of situation was handled well in the wake of the recent shooting spree in Odessa, Texas.
The killer murdered seven people on Saturday after he was fired from his job that morning. It was reported he had been “on a long spiral down.”
Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said he wouldn’t mention the name at the news conference: “I’m not going to give him any notoriety for what he did.” Instead, the name was released in a social media post from the department.
Others have taken a similar approach. As mass killings have sadly become common in America, more authorities and media outlets have opted to not repeat the killers’ names over and over.
Former FBI Director James Comey expressed concern about copycat killers in a briefing with reporters the day after a 2016 rampage at an Orlando nightclub. He repeatedly referred to the gunman as “the killer” rather than by his name.
“You will notice that I am not using the killer’s name, and I will try not to do that,” Comey said at the time. “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.”
The Associated Press names suspects identified by law enforcement in major crimes. However, in cases in which the crime is carried out seeking publicity, the AP strives to restrict the mention of the name to the minimum needed to inform the public, while avoiding descriptions that might serve a criminal’s desire for publicity or self-glorification.
This seems to be the prudent approach for news organizations given the horrific escalation of mass shootings in this country.