Column

Craver: It's time for the media to stop making mass shooters famous

I won’t give the troubled man who shot two Virginia journalists on live TV last week the attention he so richly craved by using his name in this column.

I won’t name the troubled man who just got 12 life sentences for shooting people at a theater in Colorado, including a Crystal Lake native. I can write about these people without making them more famous.

It’s time for the rest of the media to follow suit, and quit pretending that we’re just doing our jobs. We’re not. We’re turning mass shooters into superstars.

I did that once; I was the Northwest Herald’s lead writer when a gunman opened fire in 2008 on a classroom at my alma mater, Northern Illinois University. I don’t want to be a mass shooter’s public relations flack.

It’s time for the Fourth Estate to acknowledge we’re part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong – there are legislative steps lawmakers need to take. At the very least, we need all 50 states to fully participate in the national criminal background check system. We don’t come close right now.

But with more than 300 million guns in private circulation in the U.S. – and yes, a few of those are mine – simple math dictates yet more laws won’t cut it. Federal and state lawmakers can start by fully funding mental health programs – if that means big corporations making record profits lose their tax loopholes and people gaming the welfare system get their gravy train derailed to pay for it, so be it. And we in the media can stop making celebrities out of psychopaths who get their hands on a gun.

Let’s start with the name and the picture. Fine for the first story – and we need to publish a shooter’s name and picture if he or she is on the loose and needs to be apprehended. After that, we should stop running the shooter’s name, picture or other attention-getting identifiers.

Did media agencies need to embed the live video of what the Virginia shooter did? Will showing that live video encourage the next unstable individual to strap a GoPro on his head and run in guns blazing?

Did news outlets need to link to the Virginia shooter’s social media accounts? Show photo excerpts from his rambling manifesto? This added so little to the story, but added so much to his prestige in the eyes of other psychopaths who want to kill the innocent in a blaze of glory.

Did Rolling Stone have to put the surviving Boston Marathon bomber on its cover like he just released a greatest-hits album?

When the Colorado theater shooter went to trial, did media outlets have to plaster his picture on the front page? Did that help tell the story, or further boost his fame?

If I showed you a photo lineup of 10 mass shooters, I bet you could name some or many of them. If I showed you a lineup of their victims, could you name one? That’s my profession’s fault. That’s my fault.

Will denying mass shooters the name recognition they crave diminish the public’s right to know, as I’m sure many journalists will argue? I say no. I can tell the story about how someone got pushed over the edge, or how a person with a criminal record a mile long got his hands on a gun, without plastering his name and photo all over the place – just as I can explain the dangers of the Internet to my daughter without taking her to an adult chatroom or a pornographic website.

Spare me the argument that this will be futile because a shooter’s name and photo will easily be found elsewhere. People still love seeing their names in the news, be it print, broadcast or electronic. If the mainstream media stops putting mass shooters’ names up in lights like they’re playing Old Deuteronomy in “Cats,” it will have a cumulative effect. Denying this is a tacit admission that the mainstream media is no longer relevant.

It’s time for the media, with the help of groups such as No Notoriety, which can be found at www.nonotoriety.com and on Facebook and Twitter, to drop the dangerous fallacy that we’re not encouraging more unstable fame-seekers.

And it’s time for you, the public, to help hold us accountable. God invented the letter to the editor and the comment box for a reason.

I realize I probably haven’t changed many hearts or minds among my fellow journalists. But I will say this – the Bill of Rights is not a pick-and-choose proposition in which the rights you like are sacred, and the ones you don’t are subject to restriction or denial.

And I argue that if the Second Amendment is on the table in the name of preventing mass shootings, so is the First Amendment. One, fair is fair. And two, it’s past time for my profession to come to terms with the fact that it’s fueling infamy that encourages copycats.

• Senior reporter Kevin P. Craver has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 14 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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