An arraignment hearing will be held next week for the shooter who is accused of targeting Hispanics, and killing 22 people, at an El Paso Walmart in August. But covering legal proceedings for those who’ve committed mass violence poses a problem for news organizations: How do they identify the shooter?
Charlotte Moore is a journalist and executive director of Austin-based nonprofit the Black Bodies Project. Jaclyn Schildkraut is an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego. Both have examined how the news media respond to mass violence.
Schildkraut says research shows that mass shooters are, in part, motivated by the notoriety they might receive after committing an act of violence.
“Seeing that the way in which these events are covered has produced a copycat or a contagion effect, I think the news media are starting to shift their practices to focus less on the perpetrators and more on the victims,” Schildkraut says.
But Moore says by not naming the shooter, the media creates a narrative that doesn’t exist. She says it would be better for news organizations to be more selective about the words they do choose to use when talking about a shooter. Some worry that naming could “glorify” a shooter’s behavior, she says. But that’s the wrong way to think about it.
“No one expects anyone to glorify or praise or worship or even make famous these people who commit these atrocious crimes,” Moore says. “What we’re saying is, Tell us who they are and tell us why.”
She says the public deserves to know who is responsible for these crimes.
Schildkraut says learning more about a shooter’s history and possible motivations is worthwhile. But that can be done without revealing their identity.
“These individuals are telling us, time and time again, that they want their name in lights, they want their faces on every TV screen and newspaper front page,” she says. “You can still talk about the ‘Who’ and not give them that identity.”
The news media isn’t a monolith, and even if some organizations don’t name a shooter, others will. But Schildkraut says “every little bit helps.” She says it’s more about not rewarding them through widespread notoriety.
Moore wonders whether a “no notoriety” policy would apply to shooters of all races. Most of the recent mass shooters have been white men.
“Media bias is a very real thing; it’s been documented,” she says. “I would wonder, if the majority of these shooters were black or Latinx … what the difference would be.”
Shilkdraut says news organizations, on the whole do report differently on mass violence committed by non-white people.
“If we look at the individuals who perpetrated the shootings in Orlando or at Fort Hood, who both were of Muslim descent, they were called ‘terrorists.’ We don’t call white male shooters ‘terrorists,’” Schildkraut says.
She says research shows that there’s actually more coverage when mass violence is committed by people who aren’t white men – which is considered the “norm.”
“Anything that goes against that norm … then they are more likely to be covered,” Schildkraut says.
Still, she says, there isn’t data available to show how often white shooters are named versus non-white shooters.
Moore says race was also an important factor in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a black man who was killed in his own apartment by off-duty police officer Amber Gugyer, a white woman. But news organizations had to decide whether to specify Guyger’s and Jean’s race in their reporting – a different but related dilemma. Moore says race played a role in the shooting, so it should be reported.
“The idea that we have about what a black man is, or even what a white woman is – I think until, in this country, we are able to willingly and openly discuss this idea of racism, we’re going to have these differences of opinions,” Moore says.
Written by Caroline Covington.