Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Roseburg killings prompt questions about naming the shooter

A sign welcomes students back to Umpqua Community College, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore.
A sign welcomes students back to Umpqua Community College, Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Roseburg, Ore. AP

The email arrived the day after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

“I wish we wouldn’t print the gunman’s name. Other info about him, maybe. But it does seem that a lot of these shooters are doing it in part for the glory.”

Another News Tribune reader left an angry voice mail:

“I’m really disappointed that you put the shooter’s name right on the front page. ... What are you thinking? ... Please stop glorifying these killers.”

For decades, serious questions have followed every horrific mass shooting at a school or a mall or a movie theater.

Are we doing enough to identify and care for people with mental illness? Are we doing enough to keep weapons away from people who shouldn’t have them?

After this month’s shooting, another question arose. Is media coverage of these shooters encouraging others who just want to get their names in the headlines?

The FBI cites research showing that national media coverage of mass shooters encourages copycats. The agency supports the “Don’t Name Them” campaign asking that shooters’ names and pictures not be sensationalized.

The “No Notoriety” social media campaign asks for similar consideration.

Neither of these organizations goes as far as Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin did after the Roseburg shootings.

He refused to name the UCC shooter at all, even at a time when law enforcement was still trying to gather information and others who knew him may have been able to help.

In its suggestions about media coverage, “Don’t Name Them” says: “It is journalistically routine to name the killer. It’s public record. And it is important to use their names and likenesses to apprehend them and bring them to justice.”

However, the group asks journalists not to name shooters after they’re apprehended or killed, not to sensationalize their manifestos, and to focus coverage on the victims.

The “No Notoriety” group uses similar language.

Both groups ask the media to treat the shooters as we do suicide victims.

Experts have told us for years that publicizing a suicide can prompt others to take their lives. Because of that, we generally don’t write about suicides unless they involve a public person or happen in a public way.

That’s a simpler decision, however, when a person isn’t threatening the lives of others.

A mass shooter is different. We shouldn’t hide the name of a person who took or tried to take the lives of innocent people. The public gets to know who that is.

Equally important, arming people with information allows them to understand what’s going on around them.

Part of that includes sharing enough about a shooter’s life so people can understand what might have led to the shooting. And ultimately what might have prevented it.

We should all get to participate in that discussion, not just the police.

The media should, however, cover these events responsibly. We all saw over-the-top coverage of the Roseburg shooter and others, both in the mainstream media and in online channels.

The “No Notoriety” group is spot-on, I think, when it offers news outlets this simple request: “Recognize that the prospect of infamy could serve as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill others and could inspire copycat crimes. Keep this responsibility in mind when reporting.”

Conversations about how to play stories, photos and headlines of mass shootings have always been part of our routine at the TNT. We talk about striking the right balance between coverage of victims and of the shooter.

At a weekly editors’ meeting this month, we reflected on our Roseburg coverage and suggestions that we not name the shooter.

Editors agreed that we should not withhold a shooter’s name from our readers. We also agreed to redouble our efforts to avoid sensationalizing a shooter’s name or likeness or quest for glory.

We looked back at our Roseburg coverage.

We thought we made the right call the first day to run a cover photograph of students grieving, rather than of the shooter.

We thought we put the right emphasis on the next day’s front page with our lead story profiling those who died and a photo of the Army veteran hurt while trying to help.

Our shooter story, focused on his behavior leading up to the incident, ran on the back page.

However, we didn’t have to run the shooter’s name the first day in the front-page subhead. And a list of the most deadly school killings, complete with shooters’ names, didn’t have to appear on the front page.

Yes, we bear responsibility for how we cover these shootings. No, we’re not going to withhold information from our readers. When important news happens, good or bad, we are going to cover it.

And while the media has a responsibility in these situations, notoriety is not solely to blame for mass shootings.

As a society, no matter our personal political beliefs, we must keep asking other questions, as well.

Are we doing enough to identify and care for people with mental illness? Are we doing enough to keep weapons away from people who shouldn’t have them?

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434