One or two words is all you need to hear to be reminded of a mass shooting tragedy. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Virginia Tech, Pulse Nightclub. STEM, sadly, has now been added to that list.
Right after a tragedy, people want information. It’s a natural response. They want to know the who, what, when, where and why, which they get from local newspapers and TV stations.
When word of the STEM shooting broke, every news organization in Colorado was getting out as much sourced information as possible as quickly as possible. Media outlets were sharing the details on the injured or deceased and telling stories about the bravery of students Brendan Bialy and Kendrick Castillo.
It’s every news organizations journalistic responsibility to report the facts of a story. This includes telling readers and viewers as much as they can about alleged shooters, which leads many outlets to post pictures, videos and stories on an alleged murderer’s motives, lifestyle and personal history.
For some readers and viewers, however, seeing photos and hearing the name of an alleged mass shooter is not something they want to experience. Some view the sharing of details about those who perpetrated crimes as giving a spotlight to people so desperate for attention that they’ll commit horrific crimes to receive it. There are even organizations such as No Notoriety that call for the media not to mention names or post photos of alleged mass shooters because they believe it leads to copycats. For such groups, less news about suspects is in the interest of public safety.
This is an issue many news organizations struggle with. How does the public’s need for useful information on a tragic event stay balanced and prevent turning the news into celebrity-style coverage that encourages future attacks? Critics say that in the era of social media, giving suspects notoriety and attention starts a “contagion effect,” which leads to the creation of more fame-seeking killers. No news organization wants to make a household name out of a mass shooter, but they’re also duty bound to provide the information the public needs to know.
A look at coverage of the STEM shooting from regional media outlets shows a mixed response to this issue.
Local newscasts from KOAA, KKTV and KRDO displayed the name and face of the alleged STEM shooter as did several TV stations in Denver. The Gazette and Denver Post did as well. Meanwhile, Fox 21 publicly stated they were taking a stance against showing names and pictures of accused shooters either online or in their broadcasts.
So why is there a difference? The situation is complex. When major news breaks we want as much information as we can consume. News outlets rush to meet what can be an insatiable demand. There are also different policies for different news outlets. For some, crimes are situational and each treated differently, other outlets seek consistency.
“We don’t have a set policy, we treat each situation as appropriate,” said KKTV news director Liz Haltiwanger. This is an understandable position to take.
“Colorado is extra sensitive to these types of events given the history of what’s taken place surrounding this topic in our state,” said Fox 21 news director Joe Cole when asked about his station’s recently announced policy.
“When all of us show the same pictures and same video of the shooters over and over again I think it becomes too much.
“We can still tell the story without always showing the shooters. Most people want to know about the victims and heroes. Not the shooters. And while we have a journalistic responsibility to report the facts and follow the storyline through the judicial process, we don’t have to show their pictures all the time.”
Cole went on to say that this policy would be for mass shootings only. The decision has been well-received by Fox 21 viewers and it makes sense. But, oddly enough, so does a differing policy.
“We have rules about when we use names and when we don’t,” said Gazette Editor Vince Bzdek. “We name adults when they’ve been charged in crimes, we do not name juveniles when they’ve been charged or are victims unless they are charged as adults. We have a policy that we name adult suspects but we don’t change our rules because a crime is particularly bad. I think we have to have a consistent rule for any types of crimes. We want to always be sensitive to readers and what people are going through, but can’t make a judgment that one crime is so horrific that we won’t follow our own rules.
“We have to be consistent. Otherwise, I feel like we’re trying to make a statement. And it’s not our job in news coverage to make a statement about the news. It’s our job to report it as objectively as possible, tell people what happened. When we inject a judgment into our news coverage we’re trying to make a statement. That’s an opinion columnist’s job or a job that belongs to a different kind of journalist.”
Being consistent is a logical policy. Consumers of news count on outlets to provide information in a consistent manner, it makes them reliable.
Of course, the one constant news outlets can depend on is that everyone has a different opinion on how this topic should be addressed. This issue has been discussed by vocal viewers and readers with adamant arguments online for both sides.
This isn’t just a local discussion, it’s a national one where the answers are just as muddied. In a column for Poynter, Kelly McBride points out several reasons why it’s important to name the shooter. She lists multiple crucial talking points such as identifying dangerous trends and preventing misinformation. Meanwhile other media members avoid using shooters’ names. The most high profile is CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who avoids it, although his network does not.
This is a complicated issue with no simple solution. Like most hotly debated topics, whether or not mass shooters faces and names should be publicized appears to be a matter of perspective.