James Holmes, Stephen Paddock, Adam Lanza, Dylann Roof, Seung-Hui Cho, Payton Gendron, David Chou, Jeremy Alesunder, Connor Betts, Patrick Wood Crusius, Robert Aaron Long, Robert Bowers.
Recognize those names? Maybe one or two. The rest are unknowns. They are among the mass killers who in recent years shot dead dozens of people, most of them strangers, in schools, movie theaters, concerts, clubs, shopping malls, churches, temples, massage parlors, grocery stores. Last week the killers were joined by a deranged teen named Salvador Ramos, who murdered 19 schoolchildren and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas, in a midday spasm of madness. He’s dead now too, and soon we won’t know his name either.
Keeping Salvador Ramos out of the collective memory is no accident. The U.S. news media, without a lot of discussion, have adopted a more or less sweeping policy of downplaying and even withholding the names of mass killers from their reports of the horror they wrought.
It’s an element of the curious restraint the news media choose to exercise in their mass shooting coverage. To be sure, there are good reasons for this, chiefly a wish to deny the killers notoriety it is believed they murdered to achieve and which might inspire copycats, just as there are reasons of taste and decency for the even more widespread practice the media have unthinkingly adopted: Withholding from the public the pictures of the dead.
But in both cases media restraint is a mistake. It has the alarming potential to make things worse. Anonymizing the killers, which doesn’t seem to have deterred anybody, leaves us to conclude that the killings are something like natural disasters, unavoidable and unpredictable happenings that fall outside human capacity to understand, let alone prevent.
Failing to run photos of the slaughter allows our visualizations of the event to instead be taken over by gentle and somber images of sorrow, of makeshift shrines built of toys and parents holding candles and weeping over pictures of their children, still smiling and intact. The media become purveyors of dignity and consolation. A community grieves. Reporters bear witness. Things will be fine again.
But they won’t. Imagine instead that the vast American public was forced to look at what actually went on in Robb Elementary. A roomful of little bodies shattered and faces disfigured by scores of high-velocity bullets, fragments of bone and flesh scattered atop workbooks and overturned desks. How might those images of waste and desecration transform the way we now talk about what happened and what must be done? If that’s what unbridled “gun rights” actually brings, who could then argue it’s worth the cost?
Media ethics teaches journalists to handle gruesome imagery with great reluctance, and regardless of the old canard about cynical newsrooms editors realize that far from “selling papers,” tasteless photos cost them readers. But that didn’t stop the press from showing the public the hundreds of Vietnamese peasants massacred by U.S. troops at My Lai, or the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, or doing their jobs in any of the countless other instances when bold photography delivered a reality that words alone could not convey.
One of the reasons “it” keeps happening is that we lack a clear vision of what that “it” really is.
Might that not also help answer the concern that others who are angry, sick and vulnerable might draw inspiration from mass shooters, which is why our media avoid dwelling on the identity of the killers—and why the media are cautioned even to avoid exploring a shooter’s motives for fear that others will recognize similar feelings and consider murder as a fitting response? Have these potential copycats ever seen just what they are contemplating? Or are they consumed with videogame imagery of cosmetically enhanced bloodletting rather than the actual corpses of nine-year-olds shot to pieces?
While our leaders flail about and struggle against the might of an industry whose prosperity depends on the unceasing trade in weapons of growing lethality, the news media have a clear course of action—which is to do their duty. Massacres constitute both an act of individual savagery and a social failure on multiple levels, and we cannot afford to refrain from the careful investigation that might unearth motive and bring to light warning signs that might save lives.
If others draw inspiration from the attention the media give to the killer, they would also have to consider the squalid record of what the killer actually did. Nothing heroic, nothing exciting, a convulsive act that turned terrified children into lifeless debris. Let it be seen.