Editorial: Why do you need to know who did it?

Dec 14, 2012

All across the country today, local reporting outlets are putting in calls to their local school district public relations professionals in an attempt to report a story about what would happen if the tragedy in Newtown, CT were to happen HERE.

Let’s ignore the conversation on whether that story is more valuable to a random local audience than it is alarmist, and move on to another thought. The main premise of this kind of story is answering the question, ‘What can be done to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?’ Journalists are asking this of others, when they could be asking it of themselves.

James Holmes, Nidal Hasan, Jared Lee Loughner, Seung-Hui Cho, Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris. You know these names. You could probably pick their faces out of a lineup. You know the terrible things they did.

Some of these people are already dead, others will die in prison. But we allow these people to live forever in infamy – and that can be avoided so simply.

Why do national (and local) media outlets insist on reporting the names, and broadcasting the faces of these people? Why is that important to a national audience? Of course the loved ones of the victims of these tragedies are entitled to that information, as are the communities these people are from. But why do we need to know the name and see the face in Salt Lake City, UT, or Lubbock, TX or Columbia, MO?

Of course this could lead to a debate about censoring the news. I’m not saying to ignore the suspect. In fact, I think local audiences are entitled to information about the suspect – their background, possible motives, etc. In fact, pretty much everything about the suspect is important, except, I’d argue, their name and face. In today’s media landscape it’s impossible to censor this information, anyway. But why deliver it over and over to an audience that doesn’t need it? And hopefully a journalists’ go-to excuse isn’t still, “well, everyone else is doing it.”

In many cases, we’ll never know the true motivation behind these mass shootings, and it likely can’t be attributed to one thing, anyway. But why should the media help sustain one possible motivation – attention? These killers become household names overnight in the most cowardly way.

There are so many things that can be improved about how the media covers these tragedies  -  among them the importance of being right instead of first, avoiding speculation, and privacy for families and survivors. But the solution to this one problem is so simple and so obvious. Leave out the information that is not important to your audience. You do it in some way each day in every story you write. Do it – and let the villain disappear.

Ryan Famuliner is the Assistant News Director for KBIA.