The Roseburg, Oregon sheriff sparked a debate last week when he would not name the suspected gunman responsible for the Oct. 1 shootings at Umpqua Community College.
After the shooting, the local sheriff John Hanlin said, “I will not give him the credit he probably sought, prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”
Meanwhile, the media disagreed with his point of view and chose to name the suspect, Chris Harper Mercer, who is dead.
NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who chose not to name the shooter in her blogpost about naming the shooter, argued that NPR must identify him in its news coverage in order to properly cover the attack. It’s important to name the shooter to provide the “why” for the shooting, she wrote, citing NPR standards editor Mark Memmott’s comments that “it’s a fundamental question about the event: Who did it?”
Memmott told her “knowing who did it helps a news organization explore why the event happened, and whether it could have been prevented.” Likewise, Jensen commented:
“Despite the tragic similarities, not every shooting is exactly the same, and there is a heated political debate in this country over how gun laws and mental health screening play into what has sadly become a repeat story. Calling the killer a “26-year-old white male student” is not enough to help the rest of us understand what happened and why.
“Identifying the shooter by name is part of unraveling a story and helping place it in the larger context of many shootings. Does this one fit a pattern? Is it an aberration? Did authorities overlook something that could have stopped the attack? And perhaps most importantly, what can be done to help prevent yet another mass killing?”
Jensen added that she didn’t think NPR “has been overusing the gunman’s name,” but instead struck a balance between providing information and giving the shooter attention.
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple kept it simple with his Oct. 2 headline: “Media: please ignore Oregon sheriff’s appeal never to mention shooter’s name.”
Wemple quoted Washington Post national editor Cameron Barr explaining why the Post named him. “Chris Harper Mercer is an accused mass murderer and we intend to report on his motivations and background as accurately and fully as we can,” she told Wemple. “We believe that comprehensive information about those responsible for mass shootings and other horrendous events informs the public debate. While I can appreciate the revulsion that people feel in the wake of such an incident, we see no benefit in withholding information from readers.”
At first, the Roseburg News-Review, the local newspaper, did use the gunman’s name and photo but then stopped.
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“The Roseburg News-Review published his name and a 1-inch photo of his face on Friday’s front page, below a large photo of the community at a vigil and the headline ‘UNITED IN GRIEF,'” the Los Angeles Times reported, noting that the newspaper the next day didn’t name the suspect.
The Oregonian explained why it named Mercer:
“The Oregonian/Oregonlive and many other media outlets released gunman Chris Harper-Mercer’s name after confirming his identity. Editors in Portland decided to limit use of the shooter’s name – only using it where it was needed for context.”
The Wall Street Journal quoted DART Center executive director Bruce Shapiro:
“We do need to know who these shooters are. We need to know the particulars, if we want to understand what puts people at risk of committing acts like this, if we want to make sense of these events.”
At Vice, Toure penned a commentary about “why the media shouldn’t name mass shooters over and over again.”
Last year, Canada’s now-defunct Sun News Network said it wouldn’t name the suspected gunman in the Moncton mass shootings that left three police officers dead, after he had been charged.