Naming and shaming

Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo (TPM), has written an opinion piece rejecting calls to avoid giving publicity to school shooters. In doing so, I believe he has made two errors.

The first error is to assume that refusing to publicize the killer’s name is a meaningless feel-good gesture. As the WSJ explains:

Mass shooters aim to tell a story through their actions. They create a narrative about how the world has forced them to act, and then must persuade themselves to believe it. The final step is crafting the story for others and telling it through spoken warnings beforehand, taunting words to victims or manifestos created for public airing.

What these findings suggest is that mass shootings are a kind of theater. Their purpose is essentially terrorism—minus, in most cases, a political agenda. The public spectacle, the mass slaughter of mostly random victims, is meant to be seen as an attack against society itself. The typical consummation of the act in suicide denies the course of justice, giving the shooter ultimate and final control.

Consider some recent specific examples.

The Sandy Hook killer was obsessed with previous spree killings, and kept copies of newspaper articles. The Isla Vista killer recorded videotapes he hoped the media would air, and ended his manifesto saying “I will punish everyone… Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth”. The Virginia Tech killer mailed a videotaped message to the TV station. The Aurora movie theater shooter told his psychiatrist he wanted to “blow up people and become famous”.

Unlike serial killers, who typically try to cover their tracks and evade capture, these assholes plan their murders with the media in mind. They analyze media coverage of previous spree killings. They have no plans to survive, they just want to go out with as much infamy as possible, for the entire world to see them and be hurt by them.

Criminologist James Alan Fox described the issue to The Daily Beast:

Copycatting does exist, of course. And the nature of the coverage matters. There is a big and important distinction between shedding light on a crime and a spotlight on the criminal.

For example, the attention given to Sueng Hui Cho (VA Tech) with his fearsome pose. Not just in the tabloids, but above the fold in that NY paper whose motto is “all the news that’s fit to print”. It does turn monsters into celebrities.

Take the coverage of Columbine: cover of Time with the pictures and headline “Monsters next door.” Sure, as adults we saw Klebold and Harris as monsters, but there would have been a few alienated adolescents who saw them as heroes . . . not only did they get even with the jocks, and the nasty teachers, but they’re famous for it.

There are related issues around suicide. The CDC actually has guidelines for reporting suicides, because careless media coverage has been shown to cause copycat suicide attempts. There’s some research on similar issues around spree killers; e.g. “Threats of school violence in Pennsylvania after media coverage of the Columbine High School massacre: examining the role of imitation

But the bigger error Josh Marshall makes is this: He assumes that the police, NRA and politicians who are refusing to name the killer, are doing so for selfish, venal reasons.

Now, it’s certainly possible that the NRA are suggesting that we avoid giving publicity to spree killers purely so that we will be distracted from considering America’s gun problem. Maybe the NRA really do believe that spree killers never copycat, and are pushing the idea of reduced media coverage cynically, as something they believe won’t help.

But it’s also possible that the NRA are aware of the research, and have heard about the many criminologists and psychologists who think that wall-to-wall news reports and biography pieces concerning spree killers encourage copycats.

When you immediately assume without evidence that your opponent is ignorant and acting selfishly, you are behaving unfairly, and you are unlikely to convince anyone.

For example, what if I was to assume that Josh Marshall was acting in bad faith? It’s pretty easy to come up with a narrative…

As someone who edits an online news site, it’s in Mr Marshall’s interest to get as many outraged clicks as possible. A juicy story about a mass shooter is a great way to do that. So obviously he doesn’t want us to refrain from naming spree killers; he wants to encourage as many copycats as possible, so he’ll have lots more grisly details to publish in TPM.

See how unfair that is? If I was seriously suggesting that, what kind of reaction would I get?

The only argument in the TPM piece that I sympathize with is that journalism requires reporting the facts, even if they may cause some harm. For example, yes, we needed to be told about America bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, even though the coverage will undoubtedly damage the image of the US overseas, and maybe even radicalize people into committing terrorist acts in revenge.

So how about this: Sure, let’s report the names of the shooters, but let’s pick the most embarrassing facts to pin to them. Let’s refer to failed scientist James Holmes, OCD bowl-haircut boy Dylann Roof, literally friendless Adam Lanza, upskirt-photographing bully Seung-Hui Cho, and of course friendless virgin Elliot Rodger who couldn’t even get laid driving a BMW…