Saturday, January 18, 2014


Do you know the name of the suspect in yesterday's shooting at a Phildelphia charter school? I assume you don't -- he's turned himself in, and a second suspect has been identified, but the authorities aren't releasing their names because they're minors.

Do you know the name of the suspect in the shooting at a middle school in Roswell, New Mexico, earlier in the week? He's a minor, too, but he's been identified as Mason Campbell. I'm guessing you didn't know that.

There was a time in October when we had four mass killings in four days. I bet the suspects' names aren't familiar to you:
Mingdong Chen, 25, a Chinese immigrant, is charged with stabbing his cousin's wife and her four children to death on Saturday in New York. That same day in Arizona, Michael Dante Guzzo used his pump-action shotgun on his next-door neighbors--a family of four, police said. Charles Everett Brownlow Jr. was arrested in Texas after allegedly killing his mother, aunt and three others on Monday. The next day, Bryan Sweatt allegedly shot his ex-girlfriend and four others in South Carolina.
I bring all this up because it's sometimes argued that what mass killers really want is coast-to-coast notoriety, so if we really want to reduce the number of massacres, we should significantly dial down the coverage of the perpetrators, and rarely use their names or pictures in the media. At one point, I said here that that seemed like a pretty good idea. Dave Cullen, author of the definitive book on the Columbine massacre, argued for this approach last fall:
... we can and should deprive the shooter of name recognition.

My proposal: Ask all news organizations, websites, blogs, etc. to voluntarily accept two principles:

1. For the first 48 hours, use the name of the suspect sparingly.

2. After that he can be "the gunman," or "the killer," or "the perpetrator" ... disappear him....

"Sparingly" could mean once per show or once per story. A viewer tuning in for four solid hours would hear his name four times instead of, say, four hundred....

If, in time, 80% of news organizations comply, then nearly 80% of his spotlight goes dark. Perhaps that will grow to 90 or 95. Full compliance is not necessary, or even desirable. Any researcher or curious audience member can just Google the name. Killers are not craving to be googleable.

The point is not to hide the information, it's to willfully deprive the killer of his fame....
We've certainly turned mass killers into household names in the recent past -- we remember Adam Lanza in Newtown, Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Colmbine.

But this country now has so many mass killings that the names are becoming harder to remember. Who was the shooter in the Aurora movie theater? Oh yeah ... it was James Holmes. Who shot Gabby Giffords? Let's see ... um, Jared Loughner.

Mass shootings are getting to be so common that only the worst ones become multi-day stories. We may eventually get to the point that we don't pay serious attention to any such incidents, just because they're so frequent.

Will that make them stop? I doubt it. Cullen's book on Columbine makes it clear that Eric Harris, the mastermind of the Columbine massacre, was actively seeking fame -- but it's not at all clear that that's true of other mass shooters. And even those who seek fame seem to want a sort of subcultural fame, almost like bands that would rather be the best in a particular semi-obscure genre than sell a million CDs. Here's how Adam Lanza put it on the Shocked Beyond Belief message board, some time before he shot up Sandy Hook Elementary School:
... just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers and beyond these fans are countless more people who can sympathize with them; and beyond these are millions more who never think of relating the circumstances of their lives to anyone else but instead just go through the motions of life incessantly dissatisfied with their environment.
He's talking about cult fame -- which, in the Internet age, may be enough for these guys. And these shooters can probably get that even if they're rarely ID'd in the press.

So it might just be futile to reduce the media attention to the shooters -- if they're known at all, or at least if the worst of them are, they'll have subterranean fame.

But meanwhile, we may be such a killer-saturated country that we'll get out of the habit of making mass shooters truly famous on a mass scale. So I think we'll see what effect that has.


Victor said...

My fear is that anonymity will lead to less coverage of the carnage they cause.

But I do like the idea of only mentioning the name once a newscast for the first few days.

Maybe that way, "limited anonymity" will point out the banal causes of these evils and deaths.

aimai said...

Yeah, I agree. I think its a ridiculous argument that totally confuses correlation with causation. To the extent that a young person wants "fame" it probably isn't "was mentioned in the NYT" but rather, as you point out, a kind of sub cultural or niche fame and that can even depend on doing something that only a select few find out about or publishing what you are going to do to a narrow band of people that matter to you. People don't thrill kill or mass kill to get publicity at all, half the time, or not in this rather conventional sense.

This rather reminds me of the same argument which is being made right now about the reality tv shows that show actual teen mothers and teen pregnancies. A certain percentage of the country (I won't tag it as right or left) assumes that all publicity is good publicity from the point of view of the person who gets to be in front of a camera. There is also some notion that these girls lead such debased and meaningless lives that living their lives on camera is some kind of celebrity step up for them which they would actively seek for by getting pregnant. And, the argument goes, they will have a lot of imitators--girls who would otherwise not get pregnant as teens--because of the assumption of reflected glamor and/or normalization. But, as it turns out, this is backwards. A recent study has argued that in places where the show is seen teenage pregnancy has gone down. Why? Because seeing the results of the unplanned or planned pregnancy, seeing the social and financial fallout, gives girls and boys a chance to talk about what they want out of life with their sexual partners. It gives them a glimpse into a "what if" world in which they have accidentally or on purpose gotten pregnant in highschool.

So you might just as well argue that public discussion of these mass shootings and/or publication of the names and identities of these kids will lead to a decrease over time in mass killings as some people see themselves in these killers and get help, or people start to have a conversation about the kids hey know who need help.

Daro said...

Yeah, it's the fame that's a key driver, I'm convinced. They even made movies of people like the Zodiac Killer. What a thrill for a loser nobody! It's down to perverse incentives. Anonymise them and the rate will drop off at least somewhat. If it reduces even one mass killing then it's worth it..

Daro said...

My avatar is ironic...

aimai said...

I'd also like to point out that it isn't going to be a question of "stop/not stop"--if the theory is correct only that portion of the mass shootings that are fame related will stop. There's no evidence that all or even most of the killings are related to fame seeking on a national or international scale. But it may cut down on some copy cat style incidents.

Ten Bears said...

Erase them. Make no mention of them at all. Label them, if you must, Moron. Moron One, Moron Two, on down the line. Deny them the dignity of ever having existed.

I disagree, a, a bit on pregnancy. The Church has long used pirnography (and crotch-shots on Fox) to enforce the Cult of Male Domination, to normalize the subjugation of women. Indeed, for the Jew/"Christian"/Muslim/Mormon Cult of Male Domination bare foot and pregnant is optimum. Your television reality shows serve to glorify, leading many troubled teens to seek it out as solace for their perceived, indeed induced, misery. Reality shows serve as well as dog-whistles in the class war. I'd argue they should be banned, but I'm the guy a judge once gave me a choice: a tv, or my pistol. I kept the pistol.

No fear.