Advertisement
  1. Breaking News

Journalists are growing more cautious about naming perpetrators of mass violence

MONICA HERNDON | Times Friends and family mourned Christopher Sanfeliz, 24, at Blount and Curry Funeral Home on June 18, 2016. Sanfeliz was killed in the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. He graduated from Gaither High School in 2010.
Published Jul. 11

"Click here to read this story in Spanish."

When Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Steve Contorno set out last month to write about the three-year remembrance of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, he made a conscious decision. He wasn't going to name the gunman.

"This story wasn't about him," Contorno said. "This was about the survivors and what they have overcome and what they continue to struggle with. It was their story to tell."

Increasingly, journalists are thinking about how stories about mass violence are presented. Murmurs of this debate began after Columbine 20 years ago. Does naming the perpetrators or quoting from their twisted manifestos encourage copy cats? Does it glorify the violence? In recent years, law enforcement authorities have begun to take a stand — some outright refusing to utter a gunman's name following acts of carnage.

Journalists have turned introspective, balancing the essential purpose of shedding light on heinous circumstances without letting maniacs dominate the narrative.

"When is publicity harmful to society, and how do we reconcile that with our duty to inform?" Contorno asks. It's an important question.

Not long after I started my last job in Oregon, a 26-year-old community college student burst into a classroom and opened fire, killing a professor and eight students. That was four years ago. We named the shooter and ultimately worked hard to understand who he was. But a good deal of the coverage didn't name him at all — or mentioned him only sparingly. His identity simply didn't matter. Other newsrooms had begun to take similar stances before and since.

Kelly McBride, who chairs the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, recently noted this shift. Following the Virginia Beach shooting in May, most news organizations refrained from naming the gunman who slaughtered 12 people.

"In the small number of stories where journalists deem the name relevant, it usually appears one-third of the way into the story," McBride noted in her column on the Poynter site. "Suspect names rarely appear in headlines, teasers or tweets."

Amy Hollyfield is our senior deputy editor for news. In recent months, she has led a newsroom committee examining our internal policies and guidelines — from how we comport ourselves on social media to how we handle profanity in our stories. One policy we are crafting deals with major acts of violence.

"I think it's our responsibility in the breaking moments of a news story to report the news," Hollyfield said. "The identity of the perpetrator, that person's background and profile, are essential parts of the breaking news."

Hollyfield believes strongly that we need to help explain these tragedies, and that means, in cases of gun violence, naming the shooter. It's also critical that we dig deep into the circumstances as part of our watchdog role to better understand society's ills. But as time goes by, she thinks we should be more cautious. I agree on all counts.

"It shouldn't be a reflex that when we're writing about the anniversary of a shooting or referencing a shooting that we name the shooter," she said.

At Orlando's Pulse nightclub, 49 victims were killed by a lone gunman in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016. Later that day, Contorno threw some clothes in a bag and headed to Orlando. He was part of a team of journalists who tried to explain to readers what happened while capturing the devastating pain it had caused. Now, three years later, he thinks about how we should handle these horrifying tragedies.

"These are really important conversations to have in our newsroom and as an industry so if and when devastation comes to our community, we act responsibly," Contorno said. "You never want to be in a position of saying, 'We'll do better next time,' when there's an opportunity to learn now."

Contact the writer at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow @markkatches

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    University police say a 25-year-old grad student enrolled at the University of Florida fell to her death Friday afternoon from near the top of the 8-story parking facility.
  2. A semi-trailer truck fell onto an SUV on Interstate 4 on Friday night after a reported tornado touched down and crossed the highway near Lakeland. No one was injured. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    A tornado caused damage and power loss but no injuries in Pinellas County. In Polk County, I-4 drivers were fortunate no one was injured when another tornado crosses the interstate.
  3. Yesterday• Hillsborough
    Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    University police say a woman fell to her death Friday afternoon from near the top of the 8-story parking facility.
  4. Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins, right, and  school board chair Tammy Shamburger speaks on newly raised concerns of a undiscovered cemetery for indigent African Americans that may be within the vicinity of King High School in Tampa on Friday. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Much is unclear at this point, say Hillsborough school officials, who promise to be open and transparent with the community,
  5. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said the man suffered upper body trauma. His death is now being investigated.
  6. Rescue crews work Thursday night at the scene of a fatal wrong-way crash involving on U.S. 301 near Bloomingdale Ridge Drive. The driver of the Acura sedan, Anthony L. Shaw of St. Petersburg, was driving south in the northbound lanes when the crash happened, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    Anthony L. Shaw, 45, was driving an Acura sedan south in the northbound lanes before the crash, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
  7. Pasco County Sheriff's deputies lead three teenagers from a Wesley Chapel Publix store after responding to reports that the boys had been showing off handguns there in a Snapchat video. PASCO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE  |  Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    The three Pinellas boys were apprehended while they were still walking the aisles of the Wesley Chapel store.
  8. Yogi Goswami
    The Molekule Air Mini is a scaled-down version of its original purifier.
  9. Luis Tull, 36, is a suspect in a shooting and carjacking at a Zephyrhills McDonald's on Wednesday night, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said. Pasco County Sheriff's Office
    Luis Tull, 36, was arrested Thursday after stealing three cars and driving at deputies, drawing their fire, the sheriff says.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement