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Media: Please ignore Oregon sheriff’s appeal never to mention shooter’s name

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin speaks to the media after a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., on Thursday. (Steve Dipaola/Reuters)

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin yesterday issued a direct request to the media yesterday following the mass killing at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. “I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act. … We would encourage media and the community to avoid using [the name]. We encourage you to not repeat it. We encourage you not to glorify and create sensationalism for him.” (He repeated the sentiment this afternoon).

After Fox News cited those remarks this morning, host Jon Scott endorsed them: “I like the sheriff’s approach,” he said. Gretchen Carlson, who hosts a 2 p.m. show on the network, vowed not to mentioned his name either. Scott and Carlson have some company on this point of media ethics at Fox News. Last night on her show, host Megyn Kelly, as per custom, avoided giving any publicity the shooter, 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer. Kelly even engaged in some debate with CNN’s Don Lemon over the matter:

Consistent with Kelly’s suggestion about the TV-vs.-print distinction, Washington Post national editor Cameron Barr explains why his reporters won’t be heeding the sheriff:

Chris Harper Mercer is an accused mass murderer and we intend to report on his motivations and background as accurately and fully as we can. We believe that comprehensive information about those responsible for mass shootings and other horrendous events informs the public debate. While I can appreciate the revulsion that people feel in the wake of such an incident, we see no benefit in withholding information from readers.

In its coverage, CBS News has used Mercer’s name and photo, both in its broadcasts and on its Web channel, CBSN. “From a journalism perspective, it’s a kind of a mistake to lay down an overall policy that you’re not going to use a suspect’s name in any of these cases. You’ve got to look at them on a case by case basis,” says a CBS News spokesperson.

We’ve asked a number of other media organizations — CNN, NBC News, ABC News, New York Times and Fox News — for feedback on their handling of the name and images of the killer. A morning’s worth of television-watching suggests that the networks are indeed treading lightly. We haven’t seen Mercer’s name or face showing up with any regularity — or maybe at all — on any of the main cable networks (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News).

Like many other aspects of this mass shooting, this debate has become routine. Media organizations regularly agonize over how to deal with pleas like Hanlin’s. Usually the issue relates to the possibility of glorifying the killer and inspiring copycats, a huge debate that may never be resolved. A Yale University professor of psychiatry and law told The Post’s Paul Farhi after the Aurora killings: “We’re all susceptible to [media] influences, to a degree. It could be that someone is disgruntled enough and sees that he can go out in a big blast of fame.”

Meanwhile, Doris Fuller of the Treatment Advocacy Center told the Erik Wemple Blog: “Jared Loughner [charged in the January 2011 killings in Tucson] — he wasn’t copying anyone. He was acting on his own internal stimulation. [Seung Hui] Cho at Virginia Tech, the Fort Hood killings — these people weren’t copying someone else. They were acting on their own delusions and their own illness. . . . These people tend to have their own unique delusional worlds when they’re ill. One person is paranoid, one person thinks he can save the world.”

Mercer’s example would appear to bolster the case for those who favor keeping his name and photo off the air, given his apparent interest in the publicity that stems from mass murder.

Yet media organizations should name Mercer and show his photo whenever it’s relevant, and that happens to be quite frequently as this story unfolds. Cable news faces tougher decisions on this front, owing to their 24-7 business model. Even on ho-hum days, they recycle ad nauseam the same stories, the same names, the same photographs. So keeping Mercer’s profile modest requires significant restraint.

As Barr notes, there’s a considerable journalistic imperative in retracing Mercer’s steps and, indeed, the steps of previous mass shooters. Serious biographical work can highlight breakdowns and missed opportunities that could have prevented the tragedy. In many cases, stories on the killers turn up discouraging information highlighting just how hard it is to do so. Consider James Holmes, who perpetrated the July 2012 Aurora, Colo., theater massacre. Recently unearthed documents indicate that a month before Holmes’ rampage, the head of his University of Colorado neuroscience graduate program had called campus police to report that Holmes had told a psychiatrist a month before his rampage that he “wanted to kill people to make up for his failure in science.” Such reporting, of course, requires repeating Holmes’s name.

Another example arises from the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which student Seung Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself. Following the tragedy, official reports and news reports pieced together Cho’s interactions with the mental-health system, and actions followed. To judge from the number of times that Cho’s name was mentioned in the coverage and government documents, the deceased murderer was extensively “glorified,” to borrow the interpretation of Sheriff Hanlin.

For these reasons, deep investigation by news organizations into Mercer’s life is a public service, not some nefarious “glorification” quest. And yes, it’s more critical to stopping future shootings than “focusing on the victims.”

Journalists cannot make their calls based on notions that may be swimming in the minds of the insane. Have a look again at the tweet from Kelly:

Who says that deranged mass killers don’t value print? An investigation by the Connecticut state’s attorney’s office revealed that Newtown massacre perpetrator Adam Lanza was “obsessed with mass murders, assembling articles, photos, books, footage and violent video games,” as summarized by USA Today.