By Erik Wemple
Viewers who receive their news exclusively from CNN host Chris Cuomo may have missed a detail or two regarding the Orlando massacre of early Sunday morning:
“I have not said his name once.”
Of course, CNN has reported the news that 29-year-old Omar Mateen of Fort Pierce, Fla., killed 49 others at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call. Yet as the story of the most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history progresses, news outlets will avoid repeating Mateen’s name and photo. An NBC News/MSNBC source, for instance, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the network will continue to name and show photographs of Mateen, but the network is also focused on the victims, survivors and the politics of the story.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who has been vocal after past shootings about limiting the media glory of mass murderers, doesn’t “intend to show his face or say his name” according to a CNN spokeswoman, though we’re awaiting a policy statement for the network writ large.
The Erik Wemple Blog has yet to hear back from other television outlets, including ABC News, CBS News and Fox News.
FBI Director James B. Comey today fueled discussion of the appropriateness of trading in the name and images of the Orlando gunman. In a briefing on the massacre, Comey made a point of restraint: “You will notice that I’m not using the killer’s name, and I will try not to do that. 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.” Those comments echoed those of Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin following last fall’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. “Let me be very clear: I will not name the shooter. I will not give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice,” said Hanlin, who also urged the media to follow his example.
Asked about Comey’s statement, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said: “We report news. That includes the identity of criminal suspects, including mass murderers and terrorists. It’s worth noting that the FBI, the agency that James Comey oversees, identified Omar Mateen as the shooter during a televised press conference on Sunday.”
Huffington Post Executive Editor Liz Heron had this to say, via a spokeswoman: “The identity of the gunman is a relevant part of this news story, and therefore we have named him. However, we limit the use of his name and photo because at The Huffington Post our editorial focus is the victims and communities affected by this shooting — and those working to find solutions to gun violence, homophobia and the many other troubling issues highlighted by this tragedy.”
Susan Chira, deputy executive editor of the New York Times, said:
“We named the shooter, as we have consistently done in the past, because we believe the name is newsworthy. We need to know about him, his background, his family, whether he was radicalized, whether or not he had ties to other radical organizations, and so on. It’s hard to write about someone’s background, country of origin, and family life without naming names. It also helps us be as transparent as possible with the reader.
“There are circumstances, such as with rape victims, where we do not use a name out of consideration for privacy but that does not apply here. We understand that some law enforcement organizations or political leaders choose not to name killers in an attempt to deny them publicity or glory but we believe as a news organization that is not our purview.”
The argument for scaling back repetition of the name and images of mass shooters stems from studies on their motivations. Here’s Mark Follman in Mother Jones:
Despite whatever delusions or obsessive grievances they may be experiencing, many perpetrators are keenly aware of how their actions will be seen by the media and the public. “A lot of times they thrive on posing,” says Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist at the University of California-San Diego and a leading researcher on targeted violence who has interviewed and evaluated mass killers. He cites the police booking photo of Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, Arizona, in 2011. “He’s got that contemptuous smile, like it’s a great pose. The savvy of these individuals to capitalize on visual exposure should not be underestimated.”
Activists who founded the site “No Notoriety” have issued a challenge to the media, which includes this appeal: “Limit the name and likeness of the individual in reporting after initial identification, except when the alleged assailant is still at large and in doing so would aid in the assailant’s capture.”
An oft-cited 2015 study headed by Sherry Towers of Arizona State University found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.” In this interview, Towers pointer the finger at the media: “It appears that yes, national media coverage does end up increasing the frequency of these tragedies. . . . The sheriff in Oregon made the decision not to mention the killer’s name. Perhaps his choice will be the beginning of a larger national conversation on how we can choose (or choose not) to cover these events.”
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Towers noted that it’s hard to say how a media blackout would affect the contagious impact of a mass shooting event. “We have no way of knowing right now because we have no benchmark,” said Towers. That’s because the media covers these tragedies en masse. “What the problem is is that we have an almost obscene thirst for reading these stories and that is what drives it,” said Towers. An alternative explanation is that the public has a natural and legitimate interest in reading these stories. In the case of Orlando, for instance, the killings span topics like terrorism, anti-LGBT hate crimes and a presidential campaign.
Cable-news outlets have been on the Orlando story wall-to-wall-to-wall since the news broke in the wee hours of Sunday morning. On this blog’s four-window video screen, we see the following chyrons: “FBI EXAMINES TERRORIST’S BACKGROUND” (Fox News), “FBI ‘HIGHLY CONFIDENT’ GUNMAN WAS SELF-RADICALIZED” (CNN), “49 VICTIMS, GUNMAN DEAD IN TERROR ATTACK” (MSNBC). Those graphics may well reflect the TV outlets’ best efforts to avoid glorifying the name of Omar Mateen. Yet really: When you’re doing 24/7 coverage of this man’s terrorism attack, does it matter if you withhold the name and the photo? Isn’t this dreaded glorification happening just by virtue of the never-ending discussion and dissection of the criminal act?
If omitting the name and photo makes a few high-profile anchors and producers feel better about their work, then fine. The drift toward suppressing the name of mass shooters, however, could well suppress the zeal of news organizations to document the lives of these criminals. That would be a big problem. Baron: “In a story of such tragic proportions, there is a lot for journalists to do. We have been intensely focused on the victims of this horrific act of violence. Their stories and the pain of their families and friends are paramount. There are other stories that must be covered as well. We must investigate how and why this happened – whether, for example, there were warning signs that should have been pursued with greater intensity. We must explore who committed such a horrible act. And we must assess the fallout in the realm of public policy. The coverage, in its totality, is designed to capture the full picture. Throughout all this coverage, we never lose sight of the grim human tragedy.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Erik Wemple