First there was Columbine, then Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, then there was Fort Hood followed by Chattanooga, and then there was Aurora, CO followed by Lafayette, LA. The pattern of copycat mass shootings is clear, but what is less obvious is how the media has been inadvertently inspiring, rewarding and encouraging these shooters. Mass shootings can be racially motivated, as Charleston was, or senseless acts of horror as at Sandy Hook Elementary. What often links these brutal acts is the desire of the shooter to obtain wide recognition and infamy in the press. Assassins and killers such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Manson quite often have delusions of grandeur and desires for national recognition. The Columbine shooters fantasized about having a film made about them by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino. For them, the quickest route to notoriety is committing a heinous crime. Why must we indulge them and provide them with the fame that they desire?
The names that we should be remembering are the names of the victims, not the killer. We should keep the memories of those who were killed alive, and deliberately eliminate the name of their killer from our collective memories.
Press reports have any number of synonyms at their disposal (shooter, alleged killer, perpetrator, etc.), but they do not need to report his name. Such a shift in media policies would serve multiple purposes. First, it would deny the killer his 15 minutes of fame. Second, it could reduce the rate of mass shootings and copycat killings. Third, it would protect the accused as innocent until proven guilty. And finally, it would spare the immediate family of the perpetrator from the humiliation and pain of public scrutiny.
There are some who would argue that the media is highly competitive and so the names will be inevitably disclosed. However, if the major news outlets uniformly and voluntarily decide that they will not name mass shooters, those smaller outlets will not provide the perpetrators with the notoriety they want.
Others will state that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and the public has a right to know. I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second. There is a difference between a desire to know and a right to know. Currently, news outlets usually do not name rape victims without their consent even when they have that information due to the desire of the victim for privacy. The NIH and CDC have issued media guidelines for how to report on teen suicides, since media reports on teen suicides often lead to copycat suicides. In the case of mass shootings, the public benefit of depriving mass shooters of the incentive of gaining celebrity outweighs the prurient interests of learning all of the details of the mass killer's life.
Recently, a Canadian news outlet refrained from divulging the name of a mass shooter for the reason that they would "not help give this killer his blaze of glory."
I would not object to showing images of the killer posing with a gun or a Confederate flag when there is a legitimate interest in showing racist motives. But that would reveal his identity only to those who would already recognize him. It would still deny the shooter the knowledge that his name will linger on the Internet forever.
So I am calling on all major news media outlets to refrain from naming the next mass shooter who comes along, because we all know another killer will undoubtedly come. Perhaps by removing the chance that they can satisfy their twisted desires, fewer innocent lives will be lost.