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How To Talk About A Mass Shooting, Without Glorifying The Shooter


There is a familiar quality to mass shootings, a similar tragic arc. There's the immediate shock, the grief, the prayers, the outrage and the search to understand why someone would do something so evil. But one part of this arc is unfolding a little bit differently in New Zealand right now, and that is because of how leaders are referring to the gunman.


PRIME MINISTER JACINDA ARDERN: He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.

CHANG: That's New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, speaking earlier this week to Parliament. She says she will never mention the gunman's name. And joining me now to talk about this choice is Mark Follman of Mother Jones. He has written extensively about gun violence and mass shootings. Welcome.

MARK FOLLMAN: Glad to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, Mark, I know that you have advocated for a long time that the media and public officials should try to minimize references to the gunman in mass shootings - their name, their images. Why is that?

FOLLMAN: There is an important strategic reason for that from the perspective of trying to prevent these kinds of attacks. We know this through experts in the field of behavioral threat assessment and through case research. There are many cases going back over the years that show that perpetrators of these kinds of crimes are deliberately seeking infamy and deliberately seeking this type of sensational media attention.

CHANG: So what examples come to mind of a mass shooting where the media played into a gunman's desire for notoriety and possibly even glorified him?

FOLLMAN: There is a glaring example of this from a few years ago, 2015 in Roanoke, Va., a case where a former TV journalist shot and killed two of his former colleagues while they were broadcasting live on television.

CHANG: Yeah.

FOLLMAN: And the media response in a number of cases was to quickly take the shooter's own snuff film that he had created and spread on social media, on Facebook and Twitter, and report on it and post about it and include some of the footage and also include his grievances from his so-called manifesto. There were some segments produced by television media and online media that included multiple clips of his snuff footage over and over again. This was happening on cable news as well.

CHANG: Yeah, I absolutely remember this.


CHANG: But I want to push back a little on you because often when the press covers the backstory of a gunman or any mass murder and delves into his troubled life, a history of mental illness, that helps inform people about some of the factors that can lead to terrible violence and can perhaps shed light on how that violence could have been prevented. So to tell that story, you need to tell the story of the person. You need to mention his name. You need to get into his history. Is that not so?

FOLLMAN: That's absolutely correct. And I would say that this is really about proportionality and a balancing act with the way that this is treated in terms of public attention.

CHANG: So where's the balancing act for you?

FOLLMAN: There are some specific steps the media can take to reduce the sensational effect and the excessive focus on the perpetrator especially in the immediate aftermath.

CHANG: Give us examples of some of those.

FOLLMAN: So don't put the perpetrator's name in a big headline. It's especially important to avoid the tough-guy posed images from social media with guns. That's how they want to be seen. They want those distributed. Don't focus excessively on the body count. That's an important data point in reporting on an event like this. But to make a big deal out of it - that's what they want.

CHANG: So when you look at the way things are unfolding in New Zealand right now as they're trying to grapple with what happened and you look at the prime minister's choice to not say his name, does it feel like something has changed in the way public officials are dealing with the shootings, or do you feel like this is an aberration?

FOLLMAN: No, I think there have been significant changes both with public officials and with the mass media. And I can trace that from the case we were talking about in 2015 in Roanoke, Va., where many media outlets were circulating the footage and the manifesto and the images.

CHANG: Yeah.

FOLLMAN: And you can kind of see how that's evolved over time. If you go to the Las Vegas massacre in 2017 a couple years later, the media coverage was more toned down in general. I was looking back at the front pages from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the hometown paper. Neither edition had the shooter's name or image on the front page.

CHANG: So what do you think it is? Why do you think this shift in treatment is happening now?

FOLLMAN: I think there's a growing consensus that this matters, that this is a meaningful set of changes in terms of looking at the warning behaviors and the motivations that lead to these kinds of attacks.

CHANG: Mark Follman is the national affairs editor for Mother Jones. Thank you very much for joining us.

FOLLMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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