Should the media stop naming rampage killers?

The father of one of the victims of the recent California shootings advocates that the media stop publishing the names of killers in mass slayings. Some psychologists and the author of a book on the Columbine massacre have called for the same.

Mass murderers want the attention their tragedies generate. Should the media provide it?

Some say the media need to take responsibility following a mass shooting and not publish the gunman’s name, image or any related videos because it gives the killer the attention he craves. (Chris Carlson/Associated Press)

Many have watched the heart-wrenching interview with Richard Martinez, the father of one of the victims of the California shooting, who pleaded with politicians to do something about U.S. gun laws.

But in a recent interview with CBC’s As it Happens, Martinez, whose son, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, was one of six people slain last Friday, also pointed fingers at the media.

Martinez said the media need to take some responsibility, and should not publish the gunman’s name, image or any related videos because it gives the killer the attention he craves.

“These kids who do these things know they’re going to die, because they want the attention they know the tragedy will generate," Martinez said. "And when we name them, show their picture and put it out there, you’ve just completed the plan.

“And worse than that … there’s some kid out there, right now, after my son was killed … and that’s looking at all the coverage that the shooter is getting and is getting ideas.”

The idea of media self-censorship when it comes to identifying these types of killers has been advocated by some psychologists, who believe the media coverage spurs copycat killers.

"One after another, mass murderers to whom I’ve spoken have said so," forensic psychologist Park Dietz told in a 2012 interview. "They can trace which mass murders in the news got them going. Or they make comments on this in their diaries or journals, or in their writings.”

Dietz said the media should reduce or eliminate biographical information about the shooters.

'We cast the lead role'

Martinez said he had spoken with Dave Cullen, journalist and author of Columbine, a book about the Columbine High School shootings, who has also said that the media need to take a look at their role in covering these types of rampage killings.

“Performances require an audience and demand a star. The media provides the audience and we cast the lead role,” Cullen wrote in a 2013 column for BuzzFeed.

“The killing will get covered, but we can and should deprive the shooter of name recognition.”

Cullen has said the media should try to use the gunman's name sparingly in the first several hours after a shooting and then drop it altogether, and instead refer to him as the gunman or killer. That, he said, takes away the stage and attention the killer seeks.

He also said that the media should drastically scale back the use of the gunman's image on television.

"I think it really sucks a lot of the joy and the goal out of it [for the killers]," Cullen told CBC News in a phone interview.

 "What they are after, which is to be heard and to feel a sense of power, is never going to happen if there's nothing in place to give them that," Cullen said. "So it would never make sense for them to do it in the first place."

"Of course there were murders before Columbine, but when it turned into made-for-television events, that's when we get these huge body counts," Cullen said. "I have no proposal to end murder, I have a proposal to end mass murder."

Cullen said that the YouTube video produced by Elliot Rodger does provide some value and offer an insight into the killer. But he suggested the video should be relegated to the internet and not given the television stage.

David Studer, CBC's director of journalistic standards, said that in these situations the network should just report facts and details, with no artificial drama or emotion. As for the video, he said the CBC decided in this case that it should not run more than a small portion.

But he disagreed with Cullen about the role the media plays in encouraging these types of killings.

“There's always a lot of talk about how the media feed these things and inspire copycats. But as with the idea that violent movies, video games and cartoons engender violent behaviours, there seems to be little hard evidence,” he said.

'Would probably be on the same path'

Christopher Ferguson, associate professor and chair of the department of psychology at Stetson University, also questioned how much of an effect censoring the names of rampage killers would have.

"My suspicion is that these individuals would probably be on the same path even if you were somehow able to magically wave the wand and remove all of the news coverage," he said.

"I don’t think it created the motivation to kill. I don’t think there are any of them who would say, 'Well, I would kill if I were going to get news headlines, but I’m not going to get news headlines so I’m not going to hurt a fly."

Ferguson said that censoring the gunman's name might not change the number of raw shootings, but it's possible it could decrease the number of those killed, because the killer might put less effort into making it a sensational killing. 

"The question would be, would they target less flashy groups? So maybe the argument you could make is that someone like [Adam] Lanza targeted a school because he knew that would get national headlines as opposed to targeting his extended family."

Mark Gollom


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