A WEEK AGO, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people in a town in California, then killed himself.
Another mass murder in the U.S. and another round of debates over gun control and mental-health care (mental illness does not make you a killer). In this case, the killer hated women, but several of those who died were men. Some were stabbed, some shot.
This time, though, there’s a new issue to talk about. Some believe the media should stop reporting the names of mass killers because it fulfills the killers’ purpose, which is to gain notoriety. They say if names weren’t published, it would remove a motive for some killings.
The idea hasn’t taken hold. Media all over the U.S. not only are publishing the name and the details, but a video he made and a 141-page document — they’re calling it a manifesto — he wrote explaining his plan to kill a lot of people. Plus, some newspapers have been publishing lists of California mass murderers through history. Seriously.
Columnists and editorial writers have weighed in on the question, and there’s no indication of consensus. Those who say the names should be withheld are convinced it’s the right thing to do, and point out media often withhold names from stories if courts order it, or if a source speaks on condition of anonymity, or if it involves a suicide.
But those who oppose the idea say the media aren’t in the business of withholding information from the public, and that the public has a right to know all the details.
One can indulge in all sorts of nuances. For example, if a mass murderer doesn’t kill himself and chooses to further his own notoriety by giving himself up and standing trial, would we still withhold his name? Highly unlikely, and if we did, it would have some interesting ramifications for the open court system.
There’s a middle ground that might make a difference. There’s no way to know whether withholding a killer’s name would prevent bloodshed but publishing videos and lengthy documents is gratuitous. The public should have the benefit of thoughtful analysis of the causes, and a forum for discussing ancillary issues like gun control, but publishing sordid details about killers’ fantasies and bizarre rationales is unnecessary.
Not doing so would deny the killer a soapbox, and it’s also appropriate. We publish the names of people killed in car accidents but we don’t publish graphic photos of the deceased — or, at least, most media don’t. We make those judgment calls based on our interpretation of community standards.
There’s no reason those standards should be breached in the case of multiple killers.