30 July 2012

Should The Media Name The Shooter Of The Aurora Theater Shooting? - Op-Ed

I was recently asked by a friend and PR colleague on why the news organization I worked for continued to name the alleged shooting suspect in the Aurora Theater massacre.

Her question was couldn't a media outlet, like the one which employs me, take an independent stance and not name the person who took 12 lives, injured scores more and irreversibly affected hundreds other by his act of violence?

(In a personal sign of respect, I will omit the name of the alleged murderer, especially since it is being splayed around on media outlets and in social media.)

 Since I received the email, one local affiliate has taken the stance and stated it decided not to name the alleged shooter unless it was absolutely necessary.

As a person, I can applaud and support that notion. As a journalist, doing such a thing irks me and goes against the fundamental schooling and training journalists have received. More than that, it goes against the fundamental role and purpose of the Fourth Estate.

There are many instances when the media censors itself. For instance, at my television station, we have taken the widely-adopted stance of not naming sexual abuse victims, unless they wish to speak publicly, children victims of crimes and juvenile offenders, unless they are charged as an adult.

However heinous the crimes that the alleged shooter committed that early Friday morning, and as much as we possess the initial instinct to deny that person any notoriety, omitting his name would be removing an essential element of the storytelling of that event.

I believe the memories of those slain should be honored and remembered. But a tragic truth is as a people, we remember the names of those who commit heinous acts more so than we do the victims. We know the names of serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, but few of us could name one of their victims. We know the name Adolph Hitler, but the names of the 6 million Jews whose lights were extinguished during the Holocaust largely go unnamed.

Is it a bad thing though to remember the names of those mass murderers though? Shouldn't we remember the abhorred damage caused by them so that we are outraged? The first thought associated with those men are of those atrocious acts committed by them, of the innocent lives taken. While those victims may not be named individually, they are remembered as a collective. The best way we can honor those victims, including those killed in the Aurora Theater shooting, is to live each day to the fullest and to make sure such heinous acts against humanity are not committed again.

As a media outlet taking it upon ourselves to omit the name, to perform self-censorship, is thrusting ourselves into the story. It is to become a part of the story, which is not the role of the journalist. We are to tell the story, report the facts, not interject ourselves. It is to say to your audience, "We know what's best for you."

It is a philosophy that the modern media still holds onto, one that has been ingrained in the industry for decades. It is more apparent now because as a viewer or reader, we now have more control over what we choose to read, watch and consume. I can chose to get my information over a multitude of media platforms, choose or censor what I want to read or watch and determine what interests me and what I wish to ignore.

And you as a viewer or reader can also choose. You can choose to trust and support the media outlet that refuses to name the shooter or to chose one of the myriad other outlets across all media platforms that does name him. You can pick a la carte and choose this one for broadcast, this one for print, this one for multimedia and this one for social media.

Or you can choose none of the above, and that is a wonderful thing about this age of journalism.