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Media More Cautious About Naming Mass Shooters

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When Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Steve Contorno set out to write about the three-year remembrance of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, he decided not 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 the debate began after Colorado’s Columbine high school massacre 20 years ago. Does naming the perpetrators or quoting from their twisted manifestos encourage copy cats? Does it glorify the violence? Law enforcement authorities have begun to take a stand — some refusing to utter a gunman’s name following acts of carnage, writes Tampa Bay Times executive editor Mark Katches.

When Katches worked in Oregon four years ago, a 26-year-old community college student burst into a classroom and opened fire, killing a professor and eight students. The newspaper named the shooter and ultimately worked hard to understand who he was. A good deal of the coverage didn’t name him at all or mentioned him only sparingly. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute noted this shift. After the Virginia Beach, Va., shooting in May, most news organizations refrained from naming the gunman who slaughtered 12 people. Tampa Bay Times news editor Amy Hollyfield says it is “our responsibility in the breaking moments of a news story to report the news. The identity of the perpetrator, that person’s background and profile, are essential parts of the breaking news.” Hollyfield believes strongly that the news media need to help explain these tragedies, and that means, in cases of gun violence, naming the shooter. As time goes by, she thinks journalists should be more cautious.

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