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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

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