On Monday, FBI Director James Comey hosted a news conference about the worst shooting in American history, which left 49 people dead and 53 wounded in Orlando, Florida over the weekend. The attacker had already been identified, but Comey didn’t mention it.
“You will notice that I’m not using the killer’s name, and I will try not to do that,” he explained. “Part of what motivates sick people to do this kind of thing is some twisted notion of fame or glory, and I don’t want to be part of that for the sake of the victims and their families.”
As mass shootings become regular news, a debate has emerged about how much attention the media should direct toward attackers. Some, like Comey, argue that media reports that name the shooter inspire more shootings, while others say public awareness about a shooter’s identity can lead to tips that help the police prevent additional violence, as the people who carry out mass killings almost always interact with people who share their sympathies.
Advocates for restricting the use of a killer’s name cite research that shows suicide rates spike after publicized celebrity suicides (people who commit suicide, along with rape victims and juveniles charged with crimes, are typically not named in media reports); anecdotal evidence of a “copy cat effect”; and research from Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University that has applied a mathematical contagion model, the same type used to predict the spread of disease, to shootings, and found a pattern in how these tragic events spread (though they did not examine the causes, the authors have noted media attention as a suspect). A “No Notoriety” campaign launched last year that aims to limit killers’ names, images, and self-serving messages in the media. Founded by Caren and Tom Teves, whose son Alex was killed in the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, it promotes guidelines for reporting on mass violence, including, “Limit the name and likeness of the individual in reporting after initial identification, except when the alleged assailant is still at large and in doing so would aid in the assailant’s capture.”
But others argue that publicizing the identity of attackers, along with their victims, is a valuable tool for thwarting related plots. After the Orlando shooting, Jihadists praised and glorified the shooter, Omar Mateen, and some even changed their Twitter avatars to an image of the shooter. But Michael S. Smith II, the cofounder and COO of Kronos Advisory, a private contractor that specializes in terrorism research and analysis, argues that keeping Mateen’s name out of media reports would not erase the effect of boosting the confidence of what he calls “fence sitters.”
“What they see is that it can be done,” says Smith, who has served as a contributing expert to the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus and the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. “For people who aren’t trained to do this sort of thing, there’s always the mental obstacle of, ‘Can I do this?’ When you see other people do it, but especially people who haven’t been trained overseas, this can inspire confidence in one’s capabilities to make an equal or greater impact. In most cases, that’s the inspiration that is really of concern. Not the particular individual.”
Publicizing the shooter’s name, he argues, is valuable to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in preventing similar attacks. “It is commonplace for individuals who are responsible for acts of terrorism to interact with others who share their sympathies,” he says. “The Islamic State in particular is encouraging networking on social media among their sympathizers. You need to have the public awareness of who the individual or individuals are, because people can come forward very quickly and say, ‘Hey, we know that this person is interacting with these other people, and they are expressing similar aspirations to do similar things.’”
The Islamic State has regularly called for supporters to carry out acts of violence abroad in the group’s name. “When an Islamic State supporter executes an attack like the one in Orlando, he or she has not been ‘inspired’ –they are responding to explicit directives from the group’s leaders,” Smith says.
Poynter’s vice president for academic programs, Kelly McBride, has called for a middle ground. “Instead of vowing to avoid the name of the shooter,” she wrote in October, “journalists would be better off promising to use the name responsibly, to tell the stories of the victims completely and to refrain from publishing poorly-sourced information that has a higher likelihood of being wrong.”