Thanks in part to this story last week by Jack Healy in The New York Times, journalists must justify or rethink their practice of identifying attackers by name in stories about mass killings. It’s a debate worth having because it not only addresses the important issue on the surface — whether stories about one attack glorify the killer in a way that inspires copycats — but also a more fundamental question: journalism’s purpose in covering crime at all.
Healy wrote about the naming debate in the context of the most recent shooting scare, at a suburban Denver school, but it hits much closer to home for me because it has been a topic of discussion in the year since William Spengler ambushed volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. The Facebook page devoted to the victims of that shooting, which I wrote about in this Pacific Standard story, maintained its refusal to link to stories that name Spengler throughout the past week’s anniversary coverage. That coverage included fresh revelations by the Democrat & Chronicle‘s Gary Craig about Spengler’s twisted motives, and an unusual published justification by Craig’s editor for running the story. Explaining the newspaper’s handling of a note Spengler left behind, which police had kept secret, editor Dick Moss wrote:
Doubtlessly, some will still be offended by the content or the timing. But we believe that after a year it’s time our community learned more about who Spengler was and what he wrote on the eve of his crime. It is the closest we can come to knowing what this demented man was actually thinking and understanding why that horrific day was visited on our community.
Still, the D&C hedged a bit. Its story ran two days before, rather than directly on, the Christmas Eve anniversary of the attack, out of deference to sensitivities about taking the focus off the victims. And the paper withheld portions of the letter, Moss wrote, “for legal reasons and because much of it simply isn’t relevant to the community’s understanding of Spengler and the situation.”
The newspaper’s caution is understandable, if not entirely transparent (we have “legal reasons” for keeping some of this secret, but because you don’t know what we’re talking about, you’ll just have to take our word for it). Public anger over Spengler’s crimes — an irrational attack on public-spirited volunteer first responders — make it difficult, to say the least, to hold a calm discussion about what can be learned from this.
Besides conflict avoidance, there’s a more concrete reason to deny such killers the spotlight. “The point,” journalist Dave Cullen wrote last September, “is not to hide the information, it’s to willfully deprive the killer of his fame.”
Such arguments are based as much on common sense as they are on actual research. While the research is thin that publicity is a proven trigger, it’s hard to deny the logic that says an act such as Spengler’s is meant to flip off the world, or just a neighborhood, and thus the stories about the killer and his twisted reasoning only serve that goal. As one letter-writer put it in response to Healy’s article, violent fantasies inspired by attacks in the news seem rooted in a desire to acquire power and importance. Shut that down and you at least remove the payoff for the killings, put aside whether we can prove that we have removed a causal link for future killings. In her letter, Ann Adams continues:
Official records must include names and personal details about the killers, but we, the general public, don’t need to know that information. That should belong only to those who are doing legitimate research into causes and motivation and those engaged in an official investigation. All that the public gains from such details is satiation of curiosity.
That’s not the world I want to live and work in, where “experts” toil in private, doing the public’s business without troubling us with the details. Plus, we gain more than a simple voyeuristic thrill when we read about the lives and minds of mass killers. Dave Cullen’s masterful book Columbine is a perfect counterpoint to his own news-blackout argument. Through a massive reporting effort, Cullen told the story of the Columbine killers, debunking myths and answering the central question we all have when such crimes occur: Why?
In Cullen’s book, we read about two troubled teens indistinguishable from many other troubled teens. Maybe that’s the lesson to be learned. The answers we crave rarely prove simple and clear. We tend to blame ostensibly fixable problems (lax gun laws, weak mental health care, missed signals of a coming crime) and define killers as alien beings (monsters, evil, senseless). What if life proves more confounding than that? What if potential killers walk among us, able to snap under conditions that prove harmless in nearly all other cases? In the end, that reality of human nature may be the most valuable lesson we learn from many of these crimes, and we depend on journalists like Cullen and Craig to dig up the facts and tell us what they learned — or couldn’t learn.
None of this is an argument to ignore victims or elevate killers to cult-hero status. True-crime reports that in fact treat violence as mere entertainment deserve our condemnation. But that should not mean that everyone must be denied details and answers when mass killers strike in our midst. We owe it to ourselves to understand this side of human nature. And we depend on journalists to do their job and tell us the truth. Names included.