Clarence Page: Give killers coverage, but not a soapbox

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Who deserves more attention in news coverage of mass killings: the victims or the killers? The question has risen with new heat after the rampage in Isla Vista, California, which resulted in six murders and 13 injuries.

After Elliot Rodger’s mass shooting in that town near Santa Barbara, many families of victims and law enforcement officials have urged journalists and public officials to avoid using the gunmen’s names and photos in public.

The New York Times, among other outlets, was criticized for posting Rodger’s rambling manifesto and YouTube videos. Margaret Sullivan, The New York Times’ public editor, was willing to go halfway on the idea of playing down a killer’s “manifesto” as, “at the very least,” worth consideration, on a case-by-case basis. “We may have no choice but to name the killers,” she wrote, “but we are not obligated to provide a platform for every one of their twisted views.”

In that spirit, CNN host Anderson Cooper tweeted grandly after the shootings, that his program as a matter of policy “will not be using the name of the CA (California) shooter and we will not show his picture. Our focus is the victims.”

That message received a string of appreciative response tweets, as well as this sarcastic dissent: “Great. More lopsided, incomplete reporting. Worse than bias.”

I tend to agree, although in a tone not quite as harsh. With all due respect to those who think otherwise, I think it is a disservice to withhold information as germane to the public interest as that which identifies mass killers or offers insight into their madness.

This is particularly true in an age when anyone with access to the Internet can easily find the same information with a Web search — with or without the context that we hope responsible media will bring.

It’s not just that we humans are naturally nosy that drives the desire of audiences to hear as much information as they can about a crime this monstrous. We also want to make some sense out such senseless, deadly acts.

It is quite proper in public ceremonies, for example, to avoid giving the killers any more publicity that might bring further pain to the families of survivors or help to glorify criminal acts in other deranged minds. In that spirit, President Obama, among others, agreed not to mention the gunman’s name when he flew to Colorado in July 2012 to memorialize 12 people killed in an Aurora movie theater.

But outside such formal occasions we look to news media to give valuable insight and spark discussions, hopefully with psychiatrists and other knowledgeable sources.

For example, Rodger’s apparent hatred of women, boldly displayed in his hours of video monologues, touched off a new national conversation about the male-centered culture that may have fed his delusions on top of his record of mental health issues.

News that he had shared his frustrations on websites for “Men’s Rights,” ‘‘Pickup Artists” and “bodybuilders” helped bring new attention to the feminist Twitter-based hashtag movement “YesAllWomen.” Its message: Not all men are misogynists, but yes all women are vulnerable to abuse and worse by misogyny.

Significantly missing in my view, compared to other mass shootings in recent decades, was much serious discussion about new gun safety legislation. One wonders how many more massacres it will take to move that needle of public opinion. Of six dead in the incident, Rodger shot three and stabbed three.

But on another issue, Rodger’s case does offer insight, although at a tragic cost, into the gaping holes in our mental health safety net. Police arrived at his apartment last month after Rodger’s mother alerted authorities to her son’s YouTube videos. They later left with the impression that he was a polite and sane young man without looking at his videos, which Rodger later said in one of his videos would have exposed his intentions.

A special “co-response” unit like those in some other California counties, consisting of both police officers and mental health workers, might have made a crucial difference in that visit. Sometimes it is through tragedies that we learn the value of such services the hard way. That’s another reason for us to honor the victims, but also pay serious attention to the perpetrators.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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