Why PM Jacinda Ardern won’t say shooter’s name

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday the man suspected of killing 50 people at two mosques in the city of Christchurch wants notoriety, and she refuses to give it to him. 

“One thing I can assure you — you won’t hear me speak his name,” she said.

Ardern’s comments reflect a growing body of research that shows elevating the identity of the perpetrator in mass shootings leads to copycats. 

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“A lot of perpetrators want fame,” said Adam Lankford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama who studies mass shootings. “Simply reporting that this happened is not going to lead to a bunch of a copycat attacks. It’s the coverage of individuals as de facto celebrities that is problematic.”

In the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, the shooter called a local news station during his attack and then checked Facebook to see if he had “gone viral.” In a video made before the 2018 Parkland shooting, the gunman bragged about the forthcoming attack and said “when you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am.” In New Zealand last week, the shooting suspect used a helmet-mounted camera to capture footage of the killings which he streamed live on Facebook and posted on YouTube and Twitter. It has since been removed. 

Lankford conducted a 2017 study which looked at seven mass killings during 2013–2017 and found the killers received more media coverage than professional athletes. He says he’s presenting a new study at the National Science Foundation next month showing that since 2010 there’s been a more than 80-percent increase in highly lethal mass shooters that were influenced by a previous attacker. 

“When you’re giving the Charleston church shooter as much attention as Tom Cruise or Kim Kardashian, why would you be surprised that a tiny percentage of people believe he is worthy of their worship and should be imitated?” Lankford said.

Journalists have an ethical obligation to report on details of mass shootings and to name mass shooters — it’s part of the public’s right to know, helps prevent misinformation and may help prevent future incidents by informing the public about warning signs. But the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm.”

Campaigns aim to educate the media and the public on the dangers of sensationalizing mass killers. The Don’t Name Them campaign, sponsored by the FBI, and the No Notoriety campaign, started by family members of the victims of the Aurora Colorado movie theater shooting, both advocate downplaying the perpetrator’s name and likeness, unless he or she is at large, and shifting the focus to victims and survivors.

In February David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland shooting, criticized USA TODAY for its coverage of mass shootings, calling it “one of the best news organizations at making mass shooters famous in the first place. They always plaster the shooter’s face everywhere.”

USA TODAY issued a statement in response: “USA TODAY takes seriously its role as the nation’s newspaper. We also take seriously the concerns of our audiences. This is how we improve. Our newsrooms care deeply about how the news we report affects our local communities. We live in and are part of these communities. We also have grieved. We will continue to discuss how best to cover the ongoing tragedy of mass shootings.” 

As mass shootings increase, media organizations and watchdogs are issuing guidance on how to cover them responsibly. In its list of best practices, The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school, says to “name the shooter infrequently and only when his name is critical to helping your audience understand what happened.”

Lankford presented at the 2018 conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors, where attendees were given tipsheets on how to cover mass shootings and encouraged to ask questions such as “How often does the public need to read/hear a mass shooter’s name in the news?” or  “How often do they need to see a mass shooter’s face in the news?” 

New organizations, especially, have an obligation to “minimize harm,” said Lynn Walsh, ethics chair at the Society of Professional Journalists. 

“We are constantly weighing whether or not the public’s right to know outweighs the amount of harm that could be caused by publishing this information,” she said. “While it is a journalist’s responsibility to answer the who, what, where, when, why of any story they are covering, I think, when it comes to mass shootings, once the initial identity of the shooter has been made public, there is not much more benefit to the public to continue publishing [or] airing, the individual’s name, photos, etc. … You have already fulfilled the public’s right to know.”

But the internet and social media complicate the issue. There is no limit to how many times users can share a gunman’s name or photo. Shocking and graphic content from mass shootings frequently finds its way online. The onus is not only on news organizations and social media platforms to avoid glorifying killers, but on private citizens, too.

In a passionate speech to Parliament, Ardern said she hopes the public will also avoid giving the gunman the fame he craves. 

“He obviously had a range of reasons for committing this atrocious terrorist attack,” she said. “Lifting his profile was one of them. And that’s something that we can absolutely deny him.” 

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