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Expert: You Can Cover Mass Shootings Without Saying the Perpetrator's Name

Mass shootings researcher Jaclyn Schildkraut says media coverage should limit use of perpetrators' names and faces.
Courtesy of Jaclyn Schildkraut

Mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch rocked New Zealanders to their core. What may have shocked Americans even more is the response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who quickly and emphatically declared that she would not say the name of the shooter.

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety. That is why you will never hear me mention his name,” Ardern said to Parliament on March 19th. “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

Ardern urged others to follow suit and, for the most part, the media has.

It’s a stark contrast to the way mass shootings are covered in this country, with shooters’ names and stories prominent in the days immediately following a shooting.

But a growing body of research suggests that media coverage that highlights the perpetrator’s name and face has serious ramifications. First and foremost, it can actually spark additional shootings by signaling to like-minded individuals that killing a lot of people will get you a lot of attention.

“It is a new area of research, but the results have been consistent,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and co-author of multiple books about mass shootings. “There’s actually both a short-term contagion effect and also a longer-term copycat effect, such that in the shorter term we see that the likelihood of another shooting increases with the amount of media coverage within the first 12 to 14 days after a highly publicized attack.”

Schildkraut says extensive media coverage can even provide a template for would-be shooters.

It also has negative effects on the broader public - re-traumatizing those who have survived previous attacks, and numbing or desensitizing many others to these violent acts.

“I can remember last year when the shooting at the YouTube headquarters happened, and I happened to be watching it actually on Facebook,” Schildkraut recalls. “I remember seeing in the comments where somebody said ‘Well, you know, it has been three weeks since we had a shooting. We should have expected this.’ And I think the amount of coverage that these events received certainly play into attitudes like that.”

Efforts to change media coverage of mass shootings go back several years. Victims’ families have launched multiple campaigns, including the No Notoriety project. In 2017, 147 academic experts and law enforcement professionals signed an open letter to the media asking that names and photographs of perpetrators not be used.

Schildkraut says these efforts have faced pushback from members of the media and the public who say they have a right to know. She concedes that never naming a perpetrator might not be realistic, and says that’s not necessarily what these campaigns are aiming for. But, she says there is only one circumstance in which plastering a perpetrator’s name and face on the front page is warranted.

“If you have a situation, like Parkland, where the perpetrator walks out of the building and everybody needs to know who they are so that individual can be captured and can't harm anybody, then - absolutely - plaster their face and their name everywhere,” Schildkraut said.

But Schildkraut maintains that the norm should be extremely limited use of the name, perhaps just once in any given story.

“You can say ‘the perpetrator.’ It's the same - two words - as somebody’s first and last name,” Schildkraut argues. “You can still say the perpetrator walked into this building and did this and you're giving everybody all of the information they normally would have gotten. You're just not rewarding the killer.”

As for photographs, Schildkraut recommends blurring out faces, and burying photos inside a newspaper or magazine.

Schildkraut’s own research suggests that Americans understand the power of media coverage to sway attitudes and influence events, and these are changes most would welcome.

“Not only do they hold the media responsible for those attitudes,” Schildkraut said, “but a lot of people - more than seven out of 10 people - say will still tune into coverage even if you don't gratuitously show the person's picture or say their name over and over again.”

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.