THE BLOG
10/11/2015 07:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2016

Did a Mass Killer Get it Right in Pointing to the Media?

"Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight." This is a quote from the Oregon community college shooter, whom I will not name. His quote is the reason that Oregon police investigators absolutely refused to name him in statements and interviews. A group of friends, relatives, and parents of the shooter's victims angrily denounced a local paper for mentioning his name and demanded that it cease and desist. This was more than just anger, outrage and aggrieved pique at the killer. There's an online campaign. "No Notoriety" not to name mass killers.

The FBI and police groups have followed this tact. The no name campaign is horrific recognition of what studies show, and that's that mass killers know exactly what they're doing, and bank heavily on turning their killing spree into warped and perverse mass theater and spectacle. They know this is the kind of gory sensationalism that much of the media feeds on, and they'll get the sick and sordid attention they crave. In less than a week after the Oregon college mass killing, there were shootings at Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University.

The ritual is now well-established. A young, single, loner-type male shoots up a campus, theater or mall. He etches out a "manifesto" or a YouTube rant. It quickly goes viral. The details about the killer, his background, complete with mug shots and endless speculation about his motives, is looped continually. This confers an inverted status, prestige and an almost anti-hero celebrity aura to the act and the killer.

There's a growing body of evidence that flashing the deadly rampages on the screen gives the horrendous act validation far beyond what was dreamed or certainly intended. Studies note the copycat effect in killings that occur in bunches, rather than randomly. The killings get widespread media play, and the killers all fit the same prototype: lonely, enraged, with a wildly exaggerated notion of grandiosity. Other studies of violent suicides that received wide media play found the same spike in copycat suicides. In response, a number of news outlets in Europe clamp a near blanket prohibition on endless coverage of gruesome suicides and killings. In their reports, they pick their words very carefully to describe the circumstances, provide the barest of bare-bone details, and avoid using any language that can be construed as romanticizing the killer, and his act. The point is not to give the killer what he hungers for most, and that is a mass audience and a sort of entrance into Valhalla sense of the grand end to life.

Simply totally erasing the names of mass killers from the coverage, as some news outlets do, though, is only the starting point. It's not the mention or non-mention of a mass killer's name that's the problem. It's the aiding and abetting of the killers in their calculated last gasp effort to get the world to see, hear and recognize the importance and significance they attach to their always convoluted, disjointed ramblings. The speculation and conjecture about the killer's motives makes it almost appear that there is a rational and justifiable reason to why the killer did what he did. The problem is that the speculation is almost always based on his words, and in continually citing them, we gives the perception that there is not only reason to the killings, but even justification.

The answer is to scrap the endless play-by-play of the killings, complete with graphic description of the killer's clothes, facial expressions and especially the seemingly obsessive talk about the shooter's arsenals of weapons and everything about them, even down to the weapons' serial numbers. This includes photos and film footage of the shooter's bloody path. All of this goes viral before the last frame is on the screen flashes.

News outlets counter that by saying that sharply limiting the coverage of the killings is censorship and violates the premise of the public's right to know. Throw in the pressure the networks are under to fill up hours of air time, the press of ratings competition and the relentless search for a scoop, and the temptation to go sensational is near irresistible. But sensationalism and overkill in reporting makes a dangerous mockery of the public's right to know. News outlets routinely don't provide the names and details of sexual assault victims, minors or how a terrorist group made a bomb. They even ace out profanity and racial expletives from all newscasts because they are offensive.

It's true that mass killings are the apex of gruesome sensationalism, and sadly, are real news. But this just this makes it even more imperative that they are reported without inadvertently or intentionally sensationalizing them. When this happens, the unnamed Oregon shooter and others that copycat them are shut out of the audience and 15 minutes they crave. This is a big step toward not creating even more of them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Torpedoing Hillary: The GOP Plan to Stop a Clinton White House (Amazon ebook). He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles and KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network

Subscribe to Breaking Alerts.
Don’t miss out — be the first to know all the latest news.