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From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013  issue

Want To Stop Mass Murder? Muzzle the Press!    

A truly unhelpful proposal for preventing tragedies. Fri., December 21, 2012.


By Christopher Hanson
Christopher Hanson, a 20-year print reporter and veteran press critic, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

As the country searches for solutions to shooting rampages like the recent one in Newtown, Connecticut, there is one approach that deserves an award for Most Simple-Minded: blacking out the identities of the shooters to deter fame-crazed copycats.

This idea has attracted a following in social media. An online petition to black out names of killers in news reports has drawn 4,300 signatures in just several days, according to the petition's website.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, one of the country's leading conservative pundits, has proposed such a blackout as an alternative to gun control. "I don't think we in the media should be reporting their names. I think they should go down in history anonymously," he said on NPR's "All Things Considered."

That was mild compared with National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's remarks at a press conference Friday, one week after the schoolhouse slaughter:

"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave while provoking others to try to make their mark?"

Guns don't kill people. Journalists who report the names of people who kill people kill people. Cut those names out of the news and you stop the copycats. No Dylan Klebold, then no Adam Lanza; no John Wilkes Booth, then no Lee Harvey Oswald.

Even assuming one could demonstrate such cause and effect, how could a news blackout be implemented? That would require a leak-proof police apparatus. It would require unanimous agreement among thousands of mainstream journalists and millions of citizen-journalists to cover up a central fact in a huge news story. Not likely.

But suppose for a moment that police and journalists did form a pact of silence. Censorship is an icy slope. Take one step and you begin the slide into Ignorance Gulch.

Imagine a Master Censor leaning over the shoulder of a young crime reporter struggling to write the most thorough, coherent story he can without breaking the "no name" rule. He drafts another sentence:

The anonymous actor who shot Mr. Lincoln had performed often at Ford's Theater. Master Censor: No! A copycat killer could figure out you're referring to John Wilkes Booth. Be more general.

Lincoln's killer was a Southern sympathizer. MC: No, no, no! That would stir up killing juices in Dixie.

The derringer-packing perpetrator sneaked into the Presidential box. MC: Are you implying that owning derringers should be a crime? Then only criminals would have derringers. Cut!

The gunman sneaked...

MC: Hold on. I am banning "gunman." The word incites. Come to think of it, so does the entire story of the assassination. I'm spiking it Andrew Johnson's swearing in, too. We don't want awkward questions about Mr. Lincoln's whereabouts.

Withholding only the perpetrators' names seems to conflict with the logic of censorship, which is cut like mad to fulfill your goal. The names are just a start. Thus media sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, on public radio and in the Atlantic online, has argued that news media and police should bottle up not just the shooter's identity but also his life history, including danger signs that might have averted tragedy; his movements and words leading up to the killing; and details on the type of gun, bullets and ammo magazines that he used. And if any such details leaked into social media, law enforcement should "work with the platforms to immediately pull them."

Farewell 5 Ws.

Unlike gun control foes, Tufekci agrees that firearms themselves are part of the problem. But she is short on evidence that shutting down the news would stop the killing.

Reporters should certainly take pains not to sensationalize mass murders, but they should never cower from harsh facts. Adam Lanza used a military-style Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle with large ammo magazines to pump round after round into 20 children and six adults. If this information had been withheld, would tighter gun restrictions be a matter of public debate today?

Christopher Hanson (chanson@umd.edu), a 20-year print reporter and veteran press critic, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.