A growing list of organizations say journalists should omit the names and images of gunmen in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.
The Brady Campaign, which works to prevent gun violence, launched on Wednesday the “Zero Minutes of Fame” tool for Google’s Chrome internet browser. The tool, which is accompanied by an ad and a petition directed at the media, replaces the names and faces of mass shooters in news stories with the names and images of their victims.
The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.
While well-meaning, these initiatives are based on anecdotal and preliminary evidence, and may result in unintended consequences. The goal should be more responsible reporting – not less reporting.
Instead of completely omitting the names and images of gunmen, advocates should challenge news organizations to be especially cautious when reporting on breaking news – including mass shootings. News organizations should shun speculation and report verified facts. Additionally, news organizations should be judicious in how the images of mass shooters are portrayed to readers and viewers.
The Society encourages these practices through its Code of Ethics.
Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious. Typically, ignoring a problem isn’t a successful solution.
The science underpinning the movement is also far from conclusive. The most notable study supporting the theory that mass shootings are “contagious” was published online in July. The study, which was published by researchers from Arizona State University, suggests that 20 to 30 percent of shootings involving four or more victims are tied to a previous mass shooting. The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.
In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all facts.
People have a right to information – whether joyful or unpleasant. Providing people with accurate information is the foundation of journalism and democracy.
Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.