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Are we turning killers into celebrities?

I don’t know which journalistic sage came up with the exhortation to “name the dog” but it’s a bit of good advice about the importance of including details when telling a story.

Don’t be satisfied with referring to a subject’s loyal companion. Let readers know the retired pastry chef doesn’t go anywhere without her 8-year-old golden Labrador, Misty.

Words are powerful, and names – canine or otherwise – move prose from the general to the specific.

So, I’m big on naming the dog. But I’m having second thoughts about naming the wolves.

My misgivings were triggered by a comment made by New York Times columnist David Brooks on Dec. 14, just hours after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Brooks – speaking on National Public Radio – suggested that the media should withhold the names of those who open fire in classrooms, movie theaters and shopping malls. “They should go down in history anonymously,” he said.

Later, on PBS’s “NewsHour,” he elaborated: “I think it would be helpful in the media if we did not publicize these people, especially if they have committed suicide. Don’t put them on the cover of magazines. Don’t put their faces on TV. Don’t release their names. I somehow think that would diminish some of the perverse heroism of them.”

It’s not a new idea.

Following the 1999 shooting inside a Los Angeles Jewish Community Center, David Brin wrote a piece for Salon noting that Theodore Kaczynski, Mark David Chapman and Timothy McVeigh all demonstrated a keen interest in publicity following their captures. “Whatever their diverse rationalizations for wreaking harm,” he wrote, “it also surely had a lot to do with getting noticed in an era that reveres fame.”

More recently, following the July shooting in the Aurora, Colo. multiplex, Tom Teves, the father of one of the 12 victims, spoke to CNN’s Anderson Cooper about the publicity given the man arrested. “So somebody took a gun and went in and shot a 6-year-old girl? Why are we talking about that person?” he asked. "I would like to see CNN come out with a policy that said, 'Moving forward, we're not going to talk about the gunman.’”

Most journalists dismiss the idea as well-intentioned censorship.

On Dec. 22, The Oregonian published a column by Executive Editor Peter Bhatia, reflecting on his paper’s coverage of the Clackamas Town Center shooting and the events in Newtown.

“You'll note that [the killers] are named in this column,” Bhatia wrote. “We've received five or so emails in recent days urging us to not name the shooters in these situations. The arguments typically center on not glorifying the actions of deranged people.

“With all respect to the passion of those sending the emails, we will still name these people," he continued. "Our readers deserve to know those who commit such awful actions, what made them tick and what potentially in their lives might have driven them to such extremes. Complete reporting means all the detail we can find, name included.”

Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review made a similar point in responding to Teves’ plea to deny mass murderers their quest for infamy.

“When something like this happens, we are, as a society, like a tribe discussing the events around the campfire,” Hoyt wrote on CNN’s website. “Reporters are something like the tribal scouts. There are wolves, and we have questions: How many wolves? How do they act? Which way should we go? Tell us about the wolves.”

Now, I’m not endorsing a ban on naming those who commit heinous crimes. Readers, listeners and viewers in Oregon, for example, rightly expected to be told the name of the man who opened fire at the Clackamas mall.

But did they need to be reminded of the name of Newtown shooter after the first day’s news cycle. Did they need to see the flaming red hair of the Aurora gunman night after night on the news?

Those details eventually drop out of media accounts. Can’t we banish them a bit sooner? Those who want to know those names and see the images can easily find them. The rest of us won't even notice that an update on the trial of the Aurora gunman doesn't include his name.

The big question, of course, is whether this really would make any difference? Would someone capable of turning a semi-automatic weapon on a kindergarten class change his plans if he thought fewer people would remember his name a month later?

The weakness of my argument is the answer: probably not.

But here, in turn, is a question for my colleagues: What’s the harm in trying?

Our industry, after all, already withholds names. The Oregonian won’t print the name of the professional football team from Washington D.C. (because it’s offensive to some Native Americans). The names of sex crime victims are routinely omitted from news reports, including those in this newspaper. In our ongoing coverage of last month's police shooting in Forest Grove we have decided not to name the young children of Lisa and Tim Cannon.

I agree with Hoyt and Bhatia that our job is to tell the public about society’s wolves. But I’d like to see a more serious discussion about why we feel compelled to name them so often.



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