Monday, January 13, 2014

Against anonymity: A dissent from the call
to ‘disappear’ killers’ identities


ON NEW Year’s Day at a televised memorial service in Denver, Michael Davis, the father of 17-year-old Claire Davis, forgave the shotgun killer of his daughter. “The young man that shot Claire had a name. His name was Karl Pierson,” Davis said, doing his best to fight back tears as he stood next to his wife, Desiree.

“My wife and I forgive Karl Pierson for what he did,” Davis said. “We would ask all of you here and all of you watching to forgive Karl Pierson. He didn’t know what he was doing.”

The three mentions of the name of the 18-year-old Arapahoe High School student who killed himself after going to his school on Dec. 13 and shooting Claire Davis with a pump-action shotgun (she died on Dec. 21) were no accident.

They were a refutation of an idea gaining traction among journalists to petition news organizations to adopt and adhere to a code of conduct restricting, and then eliminating, use of the names of killers in mass-shooting events — to “disappear” their identities, the better to deny them the infamy their actions suggest they are seeking.

The idea has gained attention since the mass tragedies of the Aurora, Colo., theater shootings in July 2012 and the murders in Newtown, Conn., last December — and was freshly revived after the Arapahoe High incident. It’s a well-meaning, humanistic and highly thoughtful gesture on behalf of the victims and their families. It’s also exactly the wrong thing to do.

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This proposed change in longstanding journalistic practice was started, and has been most passionately advanced, by Dave Cullen, a journalist and the author of “Columbine,” the defining book on the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since the book’s publication in 2009, Cullen has repeatedly cited what he says is the media’s potential role in facilitating other such mass-casualty events.

Most recently, Cullen has stepped up his campaign with appearances on MSNBC, and in The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and The New York Times.

On MSNBC on Sept. 17, Cullen distilled his plan in an interview, questioning the repeated use of a gunman’s name in media accounts of a mass shooting incident, and offering his solution: “You just call him the killer, the perpetrator, the gunman, the suspect, all sorts of different things,” he said. “It's very easy to do. We disappear him.”

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IN A September interview with The Huffington Post, Cullen said that his proposed code of conduct was finding favor with some initially reluctant journalists. “I think people in our business, our profession, are starting to come around,” he said, referencing reaction he received at an April 22 panel discussion on news coverage of violent events and their aftermath, at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Cullen’s proposal has its adherents. On Dec. 14, the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school massacre, Arapahoe County (Colo.) sheriff Grayson Robinson was discussing Pierson’s case. Departing from the officialist script, Robinson got personal. “I will tell you that I am no longer inclined nor will I speak his name in public,” he said. “He is someone who victimized an innocent young lady by an act of evil and in my opinion deserves no notoriety and certainly no celebrity. He deserves no recognition.”

The sheriff borrows directly from Cullen’s reasoning, which comes clear in a Sept. 17 essay for BuzzFeed. “Performances require an audience and demand a star,” he says. “The media provides the audience and we cast the lead role. ... The point is not to hide the information, it’s to willfully deprive the killer of his fame.”

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But about that F word: Cullen’s argument is an unfortunate conflation of celebrity with identification, one that’s obvious in the words he uses to the point of distraction: “performance,” “star,” “stage,” “marquee,” “spotlight,” “fame.” It’s an unintentional but inescapable swipe at our admittedly celebrity-besotted culture, the pervasiveness of entertainment in the wider society.

And it makes the assumption that notoriety is the primary reason for the act in question. Cullen actually deflates his own position elsewhere in his BuzzFeed essay: “[N]one of these killers are purely attention-seeking. Most are deeply, suicidally depressed; a fraction are mentally ill; and a smaller number are cold, calculating psychopaths. Notoriety is not the sole driver ...”

Ironically, trying to journalistically ”disappear” a mass gun assailant conveys other, alternate powers to that assailant: the power to dictate the terms of the public discourse; the power to transform decades of established journalistic practice with a single act — an act that’s still connected to the individual in question, through any number of public records.

“There’s a compelling public interest in naming the gunman and what his circumstances were and how he pulled off the shooting,” said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, to The Times. “If you don’t name the gunman and try and understand how he got his guns, what his motivations are and what might have prevented this, I don’t think that we’ll be any better off.”

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ONE PROBLEM with institutionalizing Cullen’s doctrine is situational. It’s true that in many recent cases, the gunman never left the scene of the crime; this would make application of his rule relatively easy to accomplish. Left undiscussed is the scenario in which a gunman eludes police for hours or days (witness the case of Christopher Dorner, who terrorized southern California for 11 days in February).

Under such a scenario, and for obvious reasons, revealing the identity of the shooter is essential to their capture; it’s hard to imagine Cullen would argue with this. But Cullen’s bid to deny assailants the infamy he says they’re seeking would be utterly frustrated, as the name of the man in question is necessarily published everywhere.

And under that scenario, or even in the circumstances in which the assailant is immediately captured or killed (by himself or authorities), the killer’s identity is already in the public ether, whether on television, in newspapers or through the eternalizing power of the Internet. In the digital age, it’s impossible to contain the genie of public disclosure once it’s out of the bottle. Cullen proposes an analog-era response to a digital-era event.

“Killers are not craving to be googleable,” Cullen says at BuzzFeed, but that’s a surmise at best. In a 24/7 media environment in which vast public exposure is just as easily achieved in a tweet or a You Tube video as on a TV broadcast — and more quickly disseminated — separating one form of public exposure from another is to make a distinction without a difference.

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Another problem with formalizing such a rule as journalistic practice is determining the threshold of violence that prompts its application. Does the number of victims set that threshold? Does the public status of the victim or victims trigger it?


Envision if such a journalistic principle had been adopted decades ago, in response to earlier monstrous crimes etched in the American psyche. Can you imagine a public record that non-identified the person who assassinated President Kennedy, or the individual who murdered Robert Kennedy, or the one ultimately convicted of the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — after eluding authorities for more than two months?

Where do you draw the line in the future? Which crimes will qualify for application of the Cullen rule, and which ones won’t?

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CULLEN IMPLICITLY makes the assumption, particularly in the BuzzFeed essay, that an “essential” reason for mass murder is to achieve attention. But you can do that in a variety of toweringly public ways.

Hell, you can burn down your house and get the attention of your local TV station (pretty much guaranteed). You can rob a string of convenience stores and get the same notoriety — starting with the surveillance cameras in the stores themselves. If public notoriety is a trigger for mass murder, that can also be gained through committing crimes far less socially devastating than mass murder.

The commission of such slaughter has a deeper underlying cause — something organic or a deep-seated societal rage — that’s ultimately indifferent to public exposure per se. The intent to commit mass murder isn’t a cry for attention, it’s a scream for help, a scream that could move from intention to action regardless of whether the screamer’s name gets on TV or not.

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Cullen’s underlying instincts — undercut the incentive for gun violence; do right by the victims and those who survive them — are commendable. More than commendable, they’re frankly noble.

In a time when we’re snared in a rush to the next soundbite, the next titillation via the breaking news, Cullen admirably steps out in defense of the still-fragile emotions of the relatives of those deeply and permanently affected by gun violence. He leads with his heart, and there can be nothing wrong with that.

But the work of journalists is necessarily a balance of using the head and the heart. The emotions and feelings of those survivors won’t be mollified in the long term by using anonymity to dehumanize the broken, desolate human beings that did these acts. Michael Davis said as much in Denver on New Year’s Day.

By journalistically quarantining mass killers in a no-I.D. zone, attempting to banish them to an Elba of anonymity, we desensitize ourselves not only from them, but also from any historical sense of their place in our world, a place they occupied before they did what they did. By isolating ourselves from killers’ identities, we build an artificial barrier, artificial because — and this is the greater tragedy — even as their lives were different from ours, their country and ours are exactly the same.

The obscenity of mass murder demands accountability, 24-7. And how, over the years and decades and centuries, how have we as a society and a civilization registered that accountability? With the naming of names.

We can no more disappear the people responsible for mass gun violence than we can disappear mass gun violence itself — or the victims of that violence, and their shattered families.

Image credits: Karl Pierson and Adam Lanza: photo illustrations by the author; originating photos: Pierson: via northplattepost.com; Lanza: from the Lanza family. Columbine High School, April 1999: school surveillance footage. Christopher Dorner: Department of Defense.

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