Mass murderers should be deprived of fame

Friday , October 13, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

STEVE CHAPMAN, Chicago Tribune

On Oct. 1, a 64-year-old Nevada man opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers from a high-rise hotel in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds. If you don't know his name, you can easily find it online, in print or on TV. But you won't learn it from this column.

Notoriety may have been what he was after in methodically plotting the slaughter. He may have intended to outdo other mass shooters. He may have hoped his name would gain a sinister immortality.

University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford has explained the repetition of such incidents as a product of hunger for status. "Some mass shooters succumb to terrible delusions of grandeur, and seek fame and glory through killing," he wrote.

The more their names are known the more likely they are to inspire imitators pursuing similar recognition. A 26-year-old man who killed nine people on a college campus in Oregon in 2015 had previously written of another killer: "A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. ... Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."

But it's not desirable for sensational killers to acquire such infamy. A 2015 study in the scholarly journal PLOS ONE found "significant evidence of contagion in mass killings and school shootings." Nor is this publicity entirely inevitable. After the Oregon shootings, the sheriff refused to "glorify" the killer by mentioning his name on national TV.

There is an organization, No Notoriety, that has called on news organizations to avoid coverage that needlessly publicizes the identity of these murderers. Among its recommendations for print newspapers: "Limit the perpetrator's name to once per piece as a reference point, never in the headlines and no photo above the fold. Repetitiveness is unnecessary, gratuitous and adds nothing to the story."

The idea has gotten some traction. The Chicago-area Daily Herald has omitted the Las Vegas killer's name from headlines, published only one photo of him and referred to him mostly as "the gunman." Explained an editorial, "We have no interest in making him famous."

Of course, news organizations are obligated to report the names of killers, which can help generate useful information about motives, backgrounds, accomplices and other crimes. Law enforcement stands to gain if those who knew or encountered the killer at some point come forward with clues.

In the internet age, it would be impossible to keep a mass murderer's identity secret. Even if mainstream media tried, other outlets would disclose it. The reasonable task is merely not to publicize the name any more than necessary. In many items, such as this column, there is no need to mention it.

Such discretion may sound alien to journalism, but it's not. Reputable news organizations generally don't publish the names of rape victims, juvenile arrestees or people who kill themselves. They don't use the names of children without a parent's consent. They don't identify confidential sources.

In this case, journalists would be assisting a trend that is already evident. By now, anyone hoping to gain fame by killing lots of people should realize it probably won't work. A lot of people remember Charles Whitman, who in 1966 shot dozens of people from a tower at the University of Texas. Back then, such crimes were rare and indelible. Today, they are common and more forgettable.

Can you name the man who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub last year? Or the married couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino? The Army major who went on a rampage at Fort Hood in 2009? These crimes shocked the nation and held our attention for days. But today, hardly anyone could tell you who committed them.

For that matter, many mass shootings have been largely forgotten. If you recall the one in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 or the one in Minneapolis in 2012, you're the exception. Only if you went looking for them online would you find them.

News organizations could help ensure the obscurity of mass murderers by avoiding the use of their names without a compelling reason. Few readers or viewers would mind.

Such restraint would deprive homicidal attention seekers of what they crave. Those who dream of gaining lasting fame through bloodshed should be confronted with a stark, demoralizing prospect: Hardly anyone will know their names, and hardly anyone will care.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Twitter: @SteveChapman13.

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