Every now and then, though, I like to hang back and see if others notice first, especially when it comes to matters of media conduct, ethics, editorial judgment, and the art of self-censorship.
Here is the latest issue that piqued my interest. In the aftermath of this country’s most recent mass shooting, the one at Umpqua Community College in Douglas County Oregon, (and we'll leave off for another day the discussion of what it says that I have to couch it that way), the local sheriff, John Hanlin, announced that he had no intention of uttering the shooter’s name. Like, ever. His reasoning, as quoted in the local and national media: “ ‘I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act. You will never hear me mention his name. He in no way deserves’ any notoriety.” He went on to chide the media, warning against giving the shooter sensationalistic coverage the man doesn't deserve.
Backlashes against the media are nothing new in situations like this. Here in my hometown of Tucson back in 2011, the gunsmoke still hung thick in the air when our local sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, sought to blame the January 8 shootings on an atmosphere of hate spewed by local and national right-wing radio—an accusation for which no shred of evidence was in sight, nor has any ever been produced to this day. Sheriff Hanlin’s comments fit that traditional knee-jerk response but also added in another layer, an actual call to tailor the news reporting to what the shooter “deserves.” And the sheriff in this case—who is, by the way, an outspoken gun rights advocate—feels perfectly up to the task of making these decisions for you. Apparently he believes you can’t handle the truth. But don’t worry, he can do it. We’re government, and we’re here to help.
Having practiced, and defended, journalism for 33 years, I had a rather strong reaction to the sheriff’s comments. But as noted I decided to wait a beat and see if anyone else had anything to say about the sheriff’s call for secrecy. To my surprise, the reaction was relatively subdued. But today a letter to the editor finally hit the pages of my morning paper, The Arizona Daily Star, along the lines of what I was expecting.
Fellow citizen Larry Clark endorsed the sheriff’s comments and called upon the media not to show pictures of shooters. He said that in such situations, the “real culprit” is the media. Clark then went further, demanding that the media censor virtually everything about such people, including name and likeness, age, gender or “anything about him/her.” His point is that if the media don’t give these people the exposure they want, they’ll stop what they’re doing.
You expect your fellow citizen to pop off with the occasional goofball idea from time to time. But it’s more troubling when such dangerous notions come from elected officials who should know better. We trust Sheriff Hanlin to get us the information a free and enlightened society needs to govern itself while protecting public safety and individual liberty. Indeed, it's his job to do so. Can you imagine how coverage would have gone if well-meaning people such as Clark and Hanlin had gotten their way in this instance, taking the logic of their argument to its fullest extent?
Joe Flippenread: “Several people are reported dead today in a mass shooting. We can’t tell you precisely where because of security concerns; after all, we don’t want a panic to ensue in which people could get hurt. We can tell you the incident involved a single shooter in Oregon and that the shooter is dead at the hands of police. Beyond that, the local sheriff isn’t commenting except to say that he and his department have no plans to assist the shooter by revealing to the public what his motives might have been. Accordingly, the sheriff intends to keep the gunman’s name a secret. Nor will the sheriff discuss how many firearms the killer had nor how he got them except to say that no laws were broken in the purchase of those firearms. Apparently that is all we are going to be able to get on this story. Individual families of the ten or so victims are being contacted now but there will be no further media updates. Live from an undisclosed location, this is Joe Flippenread. Allie, back to you.”
Allie Smileyface: “So, Joe, can you tell us anything at all about where you are or the type of facility we’re talking about here?”
Joe: “Sorry, Allie, but station management has decided to cooperate with the sheriff here and none of that information will be forthcoming.”
Allie: “So you can’t tell us whether we’re talking about a school, or a shopping mall, or a gas station?”
Joe: “No. I can tell you that plenty of police are on hand and the scene is secure, but media are being asked to leave and we are cooperating.”
Allie: “Nothing about what may have motivated this? I mean, was this terrorism or just a random nut with a gun as we’ve been seeing so much of?”
Joe: “Sorry, Allie. Police are closing in and we have to leave. That’s all the information I have for you—or will ever have.”
Allie: “Oh. Well, in that case, we’re off to other stories. Thanks for that report. Next up, folks: why Kim Kardashian is in the news again! Stay with us!”
Don’t think it could happen?
Well, it’s not likely. But before you find yourself wishing that the sheriff and critics like my fellow citizen in this morning’s paper get their way, think of the consequences of being held in the dark about these kinds of things. There’s an old saying in the news business—especially the broadcast end of it—and it’s this: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Yes, mass violence incidents are particularly stressful both because of the copycat elements and because the inevitable politicization of the story happens more quickly now but still never seems to lead to any meaningful discussion.
But think of the alternatives: secrecy? Really? There’s a word for the selective withholding of facts deemed to be politically sensitive, and it ain’t news. That route is not for America, and hopefully it never will be. We need the facts. All the facts. Put them on the table and then go where the day takes us. That’s how our way of life works in this nation and hopefully it’s how it always will.
Those who don’t trust that process to play out believe you can’t be trusted with the truth. Public officials who would withhold such information aren’t doing their jobs, and they are the ones who truly can’t be trusted. It’s really that simple. The question here is not whether the shooter gets the coverage he or she “deserves.” It’s whether the public will.