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Why we published the name of the gunman in the Colorado Springs shooting

November 2, 2015 Updated: November 4, 2015 at 10:08 am
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photo - Joanna Bean is Editor & Vice President of Content at The Gazette.
Joanna Bean is Editor & Vice President of Content at The Gazette. 

Within hours of the first shots fired near downtown Colorado Springs on Saturday, the questions began: who was the shooter and why wouldn't police release his name? By afternoon, this much was known: a gunman had opened fire on three people near Platte Avenue and Prospect Street, then died in a shootout with police.

I want to offer some insight to readers who are curious about - and critical of - our decisions in covering this difficult and heartrending story. And I'd like to address the growing movement that urges the media to never use the names of shooters, suggesting that to do so gives them notoriety and may encourage copy cats. The trend has grown as the number of mass shootings around the country has grown - so much so that it has its own Twitter hashtags: #forgettheshooter and #nonotoriety, among others.

Our coverage began online Saturday with reporting on the initial police calls and eye-witness accounts. Our story in the Sunday paper recounted the incident but did not include names of the victims or gunman. On Sunday afternoon, we posted a story on gazette.com identifying two of the three victims, Christy Galella and Jennifer Vasquez. They were later honored at a vigil along with a bicyclist whose name we had not been able to confirm.

Late Sunday, we posted another story naming the gunman, Noah Harpham. From the time of the shooting until Monday afternoon, authorities remained tight lipped. "Pending completion of the autopsies and notification of the next of kin the El Paso County Sheriff's Office does not have any updates on the investigation regarding the officer involved shooting yesterday and the ensuing investigation," the office said on Facebook on Sunday. Colorado Springs police said they wouldn't discuss the shootings until autopsies were completed.

Early Monday afternoon, some of Harpham's family issued a statement to The Gazette. Autopsies were completed later Monday, and the coroner deferred to the police to provide names. The Sheriff's Office issued a statement Monday afternoon identifying Harpham. A police statement at 5 p.m. identified the three victims, including the bicyclist, Andrew Myers.

Why did The Gazette name the gunman, and why did we do so before law enforcement?

We knew the name of the gunman Saturday afternoon, from a tip from a local person. After several hours of work to confirm that fact, we weighed whether to publish his name Saturday night. But we weren't 100 percent sure - our threshold for publication. By Sunday, friends of Harpham's told Gazette reporters that he was in fact the gunman, and we learned more about him from his blog and other reporting.

The naming of the gunman took on a life of its own on social media starting Saturday afternoon. One person tweeted this: "I don't know if police are refusing to identify the shooter because they don't want to get infamy or another reason." On Sunday, another wondered "What's his name?!?!?! Why don't we know who the shooter is? It's been over 24 hours." Also, there was this: "The media is destroying this country. If they didn't make these shooters famous they might cool it down a little."

We believe it was critically important to name Harpham as the gunman as soon as we had appropriate confirmation, no matter what law enforcement was doing about identification.

Naming the gunman provides context for a horrific chain of events that has left a community wondering what kind of person would gun down three innocent people, what his motives might be, how he came to possess the rifle he used, whether he suffered from mental illness or substance abuse.

In the immediate aftermath of such an event, naming the gunman can alert others who know the shooter, so they can provide information that might protect the public. Misinformation and rumors abound in the absence of facts. Some might wonder if, in a community that's home to five military installations, the shooting was an act of terrorism. And, of course, consistency and fairness are hallmarks for our journalism. If we don't identify shooters and victims, readers could reasonably wonder if we're covering up for a VIP or someone else.

Knowing who the gunman was, and the circumstances of his life, enables a community to ask questions about such things as access to mental health services, law enforcement response to active-shooter situations and how people acquire guns. In a community that conducts its business largely in public, we are a proxy for the public, attempting to move such conversations forward by providing accurate, timely and complete information. Facts matter when the public wrestles with difficult issues.

Several weeks ago, after the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Sheriff John Hanlin did not name the gunman. He said at a news conference that he would leave it to the coroner's office to identify the killer.

"I will not give him the credit he probably sought," Hanlin said. "You will never hear me use his name."

Kelly McBride, with the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization, made the case for why such killers must be named.

"It's easy and convenient for politicians to beat the press up by accusing them of glorifying a bad person. Responsible reporting is the antidote. Instead of vowing to avoid the name of the shooter, journalists would be better off promising to use the name responsibly, to tell the stories of the victims completely and to refrain from publishing poorly-sourced information that has a higher likelihood of being wrong."

Reach Joanna Bean at 636-0273 or joanna.bean@gazette.com.

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