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Should media make mass killers 'famous'?

"Just think tho," wrote the 19-year-old Omaha shooter in his suicide note. "I'm gonna be (expletive) famous." And he was, at least for a while.
Media Naming Killers
A mourner visits a makeshift memorial after the massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., in April.Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"Just think tho," wrote the 19-year-old Omaha shooter in his suicide note. "I'm gonna be (expletive) famous." And he was, at least for a while.

Should the media have denied Robert Hawkins the odious fame he coveted, by refusing to identify him by name? It's an intriguing idea, and one that's been suggested by several media columnists since the horrible rampage earlier this month.

After all, the theory goes, why give such killers, even in death, precisely what they wished for? And in the long run, if we didn't name them, maybe the next deranged loner who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory wouldn't pull the trigger, because it wouldn't be worth it.

"We in the communications world practically enabled the kid by giving him, posthumously, what he wanted all along," wrote media analyst Jon Friedman, one of several media voices in recent weeks to suggest a no-name policy. "Shame on us ... Show some class and guts, folks. Please."

Yet as much as it may to appeal to our sense of justice, there are at least three forceful arguments against the idea. The first goes to the nature of journalism and its duty to inform the public as completely as possible about events that affect it.

Another, according to a number of criminologists and forensic psychologists, is that it wouldn't work as a deterrent to other deranged loners out there, who are usually more interested in the crime itself than the person who committed it.

And finally there's the practical argument: Even if the news media agreed unanimously to withhold the name, who'd be able to stop the rampant speculation across the Web, speculation that could cause harm via rumor and innuendo?

"I'm ambivalent," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in independent practice in Sacramento, Calif. "On the one hand I want to know who these buggers are. On the other, the notion that they'd be denied this flash of meteoric fame — there's the justice of it: All right, you sociopathic creep. Nobody's going to know where YOUR grave is!"

Focusing on issues, not faces
Could keeping the offender nameless reduce the probability of copycat crimes? Perhaps, but only a bit, says Johnston: "It would be ludicrous to suggest that this would seriously reduce this sort of crime." Far more than a desire for fame, Johnston says, what unites these perpetrators is "raging anger, and narcissism. It's young men who fall in love with their rage, and it turns their hearts and souls black."

Criminology professor James Alan Fox, author of five books on mass killers, thinks withholding names would be almost irrelevant, because people rarely remember the names much anyway. How many, he asks, can even cite the names of the Columbine High School killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, or that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer?

"It's the place that people remember," says Fox, of Northeastern University. And of course, the crimes themselves. What inspires copycats, he says, "is the act, not the celebrity of the actor."

Moreover, says another criminologist, in order to believe that any change in the media's approach would have a deterrent effect, one would have to presume that potential mass killers are thinking rationally. That's quite a hard generalization to make.

"In crime prevention you need to focus on issues like safety and security," says Kristy Holtfreter of Florida State University. "For example, making it more difficult to get weapons into a public place — as opposed to something that would have a more negligible effect like not naming the shooter."

Friedman, who raised the issue in his column, says he can't predict what the ramifications might be on potential mass killers. All he knows is he feels "dirty" when he sees the name being published.

Others voice similar concerns

"I want to deny him what he wanted, the way he denied life to eight innocent victims," wrote columnist Michael Mayo on Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn called for "a media blackout — an agreement among responsible publications and broadcasters to use the name and image of such killers as sparingly as possible." And radio journalist Gil Gross wrote on that he'd refrained from using the killer's name on the air.

Gross acknowledged his action was unlikely to be emulated by the news industry at large. "What I think we can do, however," he wrote, "is to remove the celebrity status. We can make the victims the lead. We can refuse to track down everyone who knew him in school."

Fox, the criminologist, agrees. "Humanizing the killers crosses the line," he says. "When we report on their favorite ice cream or the kind of pets they had, it's humanizing someone who doesn't deserve to be humanized. These details add little to our understanding and little to our ability to predict future crimes."

Fox also abhors the media practice of focusing on records, as in the worst school shooting ever, or the worst mall shooting ever: "You're just challenging others to become the next record-holder." And he questions use of video footage, such as security camera images of Hawkins standing with his AK-47 in the mall. "It shows someone in power, and adds nothing to the coverage," he says.

It's a tricky enterprise, says journalism ethics teacher Bob Steele, to achieve the proper balance in covering such crimes. But he believes the names are important. "The public deserves to know the name of Robert Hawkins," says Steele, of the Poynter Institute in Florida. "To speak of a person as a nondescript, unnamed gunman doesn't work — it can lead to rumor and falsehoods. So we should print the name, but we shouldn't report the story in a way that elevates that person."

At The Associated Press, Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman says it's "the media's job to report on all aspects of the stories we cover, including details from the background of notorious killers. We believe it's possible to do that responsibly without glorifying them."

Of course, the community most affected by the Omaha shootings was the city itself. Larry King, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, is aware of the scattered calls to avoid identifying the killer: He's heard them from some of his own readers, too. But he feels strongly that such an approach would be a mistake.

On one hand, King says, there's the impracticality of keeping the identity secret, in this age of blogs and networking sites, and the danger of error — "there are a lot of Robert Hawkinses out there," he notes. Then there's the slippery slope: Once we start withholding information about bad people, where do we stop?

But the most compelling argument, King says, is the need for a community to understand what happened with this young man — and where the danger signals were missed — to lead to such an unspeakable act.

"What this community needs is truth, and facts," King says. "Rumors are always worse than facts."

And the most important fact, says King, is that "he grew up here. He's one of ours. We have to scrutinize who he was. That's an obligation of ours."