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It’s OK to Talk About Mass Shooters

The silent treatment has its merits. When it comes to white-nationalist violence, it also has its limits.

El Paso Police Sgt. Robert Gomez briefs the media on August 3. (Joel Angel Juarez/AFP/Getty)

Mass shootings now occur so often in the United States that there’s a certain rhythm to how Americans learn about them: the initial reports of gunfire on social media, the cell-phone footage of people running in terror, the unconfirmed casualties from “law enforcement sources.” Elected officials make statements that usually outrage more people than they console. Speculation gives way to fact: Police confirm the death toll, allowing Americans to figure out just how much anger to feel before they move on.

As this pattern became a normal feature of American life over the past two decades, a grassroots campaign began to challenge how news outlets covered the perpetrators themselves. Researchers, gun-control activists, and often ordinary citizens urged journalists and public officials to avoid discussing the gunman or any manifesto he may have written. They instead called for coverage to focus on the victims and their stories over whatever narrative the shooter may have wanted.

This movement deserves credit for pushing U.S. news outlets toward less sensationalist coverage of mass shootings. At the same time, this strategy has its limits. It works best when dealing with gunmen who have no broader agenda other than shooting as many people as they can. When used on those who commit mass murder for political or ideological reasons, however, it risks obscuring the causes that led to the killings in the first place. That may make it harder to prevent similar massacres in the future.

It began with the best possible intentions. The No Notoriety campaign began in 2012 with Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex died in the shooting that year at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. They started the campaign after seeing national coverage that focused on gunman James Holmes—his sinister visage, how he killed twelve people so quickly, and other lurid aspects of his story. Far less attention was paid to the victims, their suffering, or even their heroism. Alex Teves, for example, died while shielding his girlfriend’s body with his own.

Many of No Notoriety’s recommendations are reasonable, such as naming a perpetrator “once per piece as a reference point, never in the headlines and no photo above the fold,” and to “elevate the names and likenesses of all victims killed and/or injured to send the message [that] their lives are more important than the killer’s actions.” The group urges journalists to balance the public’s need to know with the risk of potential harm. Indeed, journalists often make similar balancing judgments when covering other sensitive matters, like child sexual assault.

Some public officials and news organizations have embraced this approach. After a gunman killed twelve people at a Virginia Beach community center in June, Police Chief Jim Cervera told reporters that he would only release the perpetrator’s name once. After that, Cervera said, “he will be forever referred to as the suspect because our focus now is the dignity and respect to the victims in this case and to their families.” Oregon Sheriff John Hanlin refused to name a gunman who killed nine people at a Roseburg community college in 2015 at all, saying it would “only glorify his horrific actions and serve to inspire future shooters.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper approvingly cited Hanlin’s message at the time. “A quick reminder, the local sheriff says he will not and will not say the shooter’s name,” he said in a broadcast the following day. “Neither will we. We’re neither naming him nor showing his photo even as we learned more about who he was, including the fact that he was enrolled in the class where he opened fire.” But The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted that this rule was unevenly applied by Cooper and CNN during the San Bernardino shooting a few months later. (To their credit, the No Notoriety organizers insisted on the same approach for both incidents.)

Indeed, news outlets and public officials regularly discuss the identity and motives behind jihadist-inspired terrorist attacks. But when white nationalists carry out mass shootings, they downplay the perpetrator—and thus risk obscuring the ideology that drove the attack. That approach is particularly jarring given the surge in white-nationalist violence in recent years. In 2018, for example, perpetrators with ties to right-wing extremist groups accounted for all but one U.S. death in domestic terrorism attacks. Studies have also shown that white mass shooters are often treated more sympathetically by news outlets than their nonwhite counterparts.

No Notoriety’s central argument is that “the prospect of infamy serves as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill and inspires copycat crimes.” Some research does suggest that sensationalistic coverage can inspire copycats. But the underlying principle—that mass shootings should be covered more responsibly by news outlets—has metamorphosed into a damnatio memoriae approach toward those who commit them. This approach may work in some cases, especially those where a young gunman targets classmates at school, but it misunderstands why a white nationalist commits a massacre.

Texas law-enforcement officials believe Patrick Crusius, who allegedly killed at least 22 people at an El Paso Walmart on Saturday, published a manifesto that appeared on 8chan before carrying out the attack. In it, he says he’s responding to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and what he sees as a plot to replace America’s white population. Targeting a Walmart frequented by Latinos isn’t about making himself famous; the killings are the point.

Another rationale behind No Notoriety is that by denying coverage to the gunman and his ideas, journalists and public officials can prevent copycats massacres. It’s possible this approach would have worked in a pre-digital age where newspapers and TV stations held much more influence over the average American’s information diet. But it seems particularly ill-suited for a time when young white men can radicalize themselves on racist fringe websites like 8chan without ever picking up a newspaper or magazine. It also makes little sense as a way to combat white nationalism when Fox News and the president of the United States regularly espouse similar views.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to give credence to a gunman’s writings or videos or other biographical scraps. No Notoriety is correct that there’s no need to splash a mass murderer’s image on the front page of The New York Times or give him wall-to-wall coverage on cable news. And when it comes to resisting racist violence, telling the stories of victims is more important than ever. But if America is going to crush white nationalism as a political and armed force in this country, it needs to talk about it openly and forcefully.