Monday brings the trial of the alleged mass murderer of patrons at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. A group representing the survivors and families of victims of nine of the worst mass shootings in American history is urging news organizations not to sensationalize trial coverage and to “to stop the gratuitous use” of the confessed killer’s name and photo.
In a letter sent to 150 news organizations around the country, the group, called No Notoriety, is asking the news media not to show the killer’s face and refrain from mentioning his name as a matter of public safety. Their goal, they say, is the same as the FBI’s “Don’t Name Them” campaign – to deter potential copy cats by denying them “the media celebrity and media spotlight that they so crave.”
“We respectfully ask that pictures of the 12 murdered and 70 injured – not that of the shooter – are given priority and prominence in your reports and on your Internet news site as the Aurora trial gets underway,” the letter states. “In this case, since he has admitted to being the gunman, after the initial identification, we ask that instead of using the shooter’s name, you refer to him as ‘gunman,’ ‘defendant,’ or ‘shooter.’”
The group, which represents survivors and families of victims from mass shootings at Aurora, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Oak Creek Sikh Temple, Alturas, Isla Vista and Northern Illinois University, is also asking the media to reevaluate its coverage of future rampage killings so that potential copy cats “will not receive fame in this way anymore.” In future mass shootings, they are asking news organizations to “remove the shooter’s name from headlines; remove or limit the name and likeness of the shooter, except for initial identification and when the alleged assailant is still at large and in doing so would aid in his capture; refuse to run self-serving manifestos unless doing so will aid in the individual’s capture; elevate the names and likenesses of all victims killed to send the message their lives are more important than the shooter.”
The No Notoriety website asks journalists to consider four main points when reporting on mass shootings:
· Limit the name and likeness of the individual from reporting after initial identification, except when the alleged assailant is still at large and in doing so would aid in the assailant’s capture.
· Refuse to broadcast/publish photos and/or self-serving statements made by the individual. Elevate the names and likenesses of all victims killed to send the message their lives are more important than the killer.
· 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.
· Agree to promote data and analysis from experts in mental health, public safety, and other relevant professions to support further steps to help eliminate the motivation behind mass murder. Recognize that the individual’s name and likeness is irrelevant to media coverage of such acts unless the alleged assailant is at large.
While such a blanket request would make trial coverage difficult–James Eagan Holmes is the sole suspect and central figure in the mass murder trial–some feel the group’s plea could have a positive impact on not focusing outsized attention on perpetrators of massacres, something that could deter future psychos with a twisted need for attention.
“I think their points are perfectly reasonable,” Laura Castañeda, professor of professional practices at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, told Deadline. “If a media outlet disagrees, they can explain to the public why it disagrees. I think a lot of the media coverage around mass shootings can become overwhelming, sensationalistic and inaccurate. Thinking about these four points will at least lead to conversations that will lead to stronger coverage. If the person is no longer at large, I don’t know what the public would lose by not seeing the person’s likeness or name.”
She noted, however, that she also sees the other side of the argument. “A media outlet may agree with not running the photo but would argue that they should run the name. I think that’s legitimate. But what I like about these suggestions is that they would spark a conversation in the newsroom about how best to handle this on a case-by-case basis. These are important issues that need to be discussed in newsrooms and not just thrown up on the screen.”
“The oath of a journalist is to report the truth and do no harm,” said Tom Teves, whose 24-year-old son Alex Teves was killed at the Aurora theater in 2012 while shielding his girlfriend from the gunman’s bullets. “We are asking the national media to recognize their social responsibility in reporting on any future rampage mass killers and on the upcoming trial in Aurora. These rampage mass killers seek fame through high profile murder of innocent people. We, as a society, must do everything in our power to change this for the sake of public safety.”
“The media has a tremendous responsibility because they have the unique power to initiate change by valuing and elevating the victims, while at the same time taking away a known motivating factor of notoriety these killers crave,” said his wife Caren Teves. “By doing so, media executives, reporters and editors will also show compassion and respect for those of us whose loved ones were killed or injured in these tragedies. For the families whose loved ones were killed and injured, anything else is just re-victimization.”
The 400,000-member International Police Association, the largest and oldest worldwide fraternal police organization, has also endorsed the group’s No Notoriety request to news organizations.
Patricia Maisch, one of the heroes of the 2011 Tucson shooting rampage that left six dead and 13 wounded – including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords – told Deadline that reporters and editors should “pause and think before giving mass murderers the celebrity they crave.” Maisch, who grabbed a clip full of bullets away from the shooter as he tried to reload that day, said that mass killers “get all the attention, which is what they want. If we stop giving them this notoriety, maybe others will not follow in their footsteps. They want to be famous for something. Unfortunately, they want to be famous for the wrong thing – doing evil rather than doing good. The media should not give them that fame.”
Eric Mace, whose 19-year-old daughter Ryanne Mace was one of five killed in the 2008 Northern Illinois University shooting that injured 21 others, believes that the media should focus more on the victims and less on the killers — something the media didn’t do, he said, during its recent coverage of the Boston Marathon bomber, who earlier this month was found guilty on all 30 charges in connection with the 2013 bombings that killed three and wounded 264 others. The sentencing phase of the trial began today. “Every time they do a story about the Boston bombing,” he told Deadline, “they show the bomber’s face; the same thing with the Aurora shooting. They need to quit giving them the fame they so desperately want. We did an interview with CNN and our daughter was a footnote in an hour-long feature that focused primarily on the shooter.”
“We’ve done this for generations,” he said. “We remember Hitler, but not all the people he killed. I think it should be the other way around. If you’ve done something so bad to be considered a felon, you lose your right to vote. I think that if you do something so evil as to kill a lot of people, you should lose your right to have a face and a name. They should be called the shooter; the perpetrator, the murderer, the killer. I can come up with a lot of others that you can’t print. And for legal reasons, in a trial, you can throw the word ‘alleged’ in front of it.”
Deadline’s Anita Busch, whose 23-year-old cousin Micayla Medek was killed in the Aurora shooting, has acted as a pro bono media consultant for the No Notoriety campaign.