When Caren Teves answers the phone days after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, she can barely speak. She’s just learned of a shooting at Texas Southern University, the second fatal school shooting that day and the third since Umpqua. “I am just trying to peel myself off the floor,” she says.
With every new mass shooting, Caren feels like she hasn’t done her job, that her message isn’t getting across. Ever since a gunman killed her son Alex during the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre in 2012, Caren and her husband, Tom, have been challenging media outlets to stop paying attention to shooters. Their campaign is called No Notoriety.
“We’re not asking you not to name the things,” says Tom Teves, referring to the perpetrators, about whom he refuses to use traditional pronouns. “We know you have to name them. But name them once. Don’t turn them into anti-heroes. Stop calling them ‘monsters.’ They’re little punks, and you should be calling them cowards.”
When news reports sensationalize the killers, he adds, “all that’s doing is getting one of these things that’s in its mommy’s basement to go kill somebody. And it could be you in a mall. It could be you at church. It could be someone you love in a movie theater. It could be one of your friends at school.”
The couple was vacationing in Hawaii when their son’s girlfriend called to say that someone had opened fire in a movie theater. “We could not get an ounce of information,” Caren says. “We tried tuning into the major networks and all we kept seeing was photos of the shooter and information about the shooter.”
“On television all there was were pictures of this thing that we were pretty sure murdered my son. Completely irrelevant,” Tom adds. “Picture after picture, that’s all that was on. Nothing about the victims.”
In addition to challenging the media to limit coverage of shooters after initial identification, No Notoriety says the media shouldn’t publish perpetrator manifestos and should instead focus coverage on the victims. “What the press is essentially doing is becoming a PR person for these people, and they expect it,” Caren says.
Victims’ families aren’t alone in believing that media coverage of mass shootings inspires others to commit similar acts. Investigators found that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter had amassed materials related to the Columbine High School massacre. The New York Times pointed out that two movie theater shootings happened during the trial for the Aurora movie theater gunman. In his manifesto, the man who killed two Virginia journalists in August mentioned the Charleston church shooting of two months earlier. And the Oregon shooter reportedly posted his thoughts online about the Virginia shooter, writing, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.”
The connections aren’t just anecdotal. In July, researchers with Arizona State University published findings that said 30 percent of mass killings had been inspired by previous mass killings, and 22 percent of school shootings had been inspired by previous school shootings. A reason for the contagion, researcher Sherry Towers recently told Newsweek, is press coverage. “What we found was, in ones that didn’t get a lot of media attention there was no contagion, and in the ones where we did see a lot of media attention, that’s where we saw the contagion,” she said.
“The data comes back unequivocally that, yeah, this has a material impact on why these things do what they do, why they continue to go out and kill,” Tom Teves says.
Besides inspiring copycats, media coverage of killers also impacts survivors and victims’ families. “I remember the day, getting the news that Jessi was killed and somebody turning on the television and seeing this animal that took my daughter's life. I got the dry-heaves immediately,” says Sandy Phillips, mother of Jessica Redfield Ghawi, who died in the Aurora massacre. “Why do they keep showing him?” she remembers asking as the coverage continued. “When we see a picture of the person who killed our loved ones, it takes us right back to the moment of the first time we've seen his face, the pain that that caused. It's just re-traumatizing. There's no reason to do it to the families.”
Some journalists have agreed to avoid naming gunmen. Megyn Kelly of Fox said on Twitter that print media can identify a shooter, but TV news should not because it “gives infamy he prob[ably] desired.” Anderson Cooper, to whom Teves first issued the challenge years ago, has also agreed.
Following the Oregon shooting, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin declined to name the gunman, saying, “I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act.”
Not all journalists agree with the No Notoriety campaign. Don Lemon of CNN said on Twitter, “I believe we (journalists) must name shooters.” And last week, the USA Today editorial board said No Notoriety could prompt “news organizations to forget the essence of their job: finding facts and reporting them, without fear or favor.”
Not naming gunmen, says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and author of The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, “almost gives them more power. It’s like turning them into Voldemort, where we will never speak their name.”
McBride recently wrote that coverage of shooters can identify important trends and add context. “There are legitimate watchdog functions that come with looking at the story of the gunman. How he got his guns, what opportunities existed to identify him as a potentially dangerous person,” she tells Newsweek. “If you don’t name the gunman and tell that story, you can’t ask any of those questions.” The concept of “no notoriety,” she says, is “too absolutist.”
“We're not asking for censorship in the very least,” Caren Teves says in response. “All we’re asking is to limit the name, don’t use it gratuitously, and after initial identification, do not print photos.”
At Texas State University, a campaign called Don’t Name Them issues similar guidelines for the media to follow. The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at the university, which partners with the FBI, started the campaign a few years ago, says Executive Director J. Pete Blair.
“Crime prevention 101 is, if you reduce the rewards for committing a crime, you reduce the frequency of the crime,” Blair says. For mass shootings, that reward is notoriety.
Blair points out that some of the killers are very media savvy. In 2007, for example, the Virginia Tech shooter sent a press packet to NBC News that contained a manifesto and pictures and videos. After news outlets ran those materials, the American Psychiatric Association said: “The publicity of the [perpetrator’s] materials not only seems insensitive to the grieving and traumatized families, friends and peers of those murdered and injured, but also seriously jeopardizes the public's safety by potentially inciting ‘copycat’ suicides, homicides and other incidents.”
“I understand that the press has a job to do,” Blair says. “However, encouraging them to reconsider their point of view and reconsider that they could be causing harm with the way that they cover things, I think that’s an appropriate way to talk to them.”
Blair and others also point out that media blackouts do currently exist in other areas. For example, journalists tend to minimize details when covering rape and suicide, as prevention and victims’ advocates have requested.
Tom Teves is unapologetic when speaking about the gunmen and what he feels is the media’s complicity: “There’s something seriously wrong with them and you’re lighting the fuse.”