As Texas Shooting's Blame Game Begins, Will the Media Include Themselves?

I won't say his name because that's what the young man who killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, would have wanted. We will learn more about him in the days to come, but we'll never comprehend the evil that descended on the mostly Latino town of 15,000. Evil committed by a Latino male against his own grandmother and then 21 others after he crashed his car into a ditch near Robb Elementary School before going in.

But that hasn't stopped politicians and the media from turning an evil act into a political opportunity. On the right, pundits and pols quickly pointed to policies surrounding the mentally ill as a cause. Then there was the usual talk of hardening public school entry points. On the left, the mainstream media—and most Democrats—quickly blamed the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.

Both predictably turned the tragedy into Kabuki theater of the ugliest sort. For votes. And ratings.

The fact is, many decent Americans don't believe that tinkering around the edges of public policy will stop these mass shootings. Serious people know there aren't easy answers when it comes to evil in this world.

One group that's avoided scrutiny is the media. Has anyone in that line of work pondered the notion that what these deranged men who do these evil things want is leaving this earth in a blaze of glory? And with the world focused on them?

The words of the 26-year-old who murdered nine people before taking his own life at Oregon's Umpqua Community College in 2015 revealed a disturbing trend in America: mass-shooter suicides. Suicides that would have never been national stories without a body count.

Here's what that gunman from Oregon posted on a popular website about another deranged gunman (the man who took the lives of two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia) before his shooting spree:

"A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight."

That post was removed. The killer's words still haunt.

The fact is, these deranged young men staged their own snuff films, taking innocent lives with them, with the media waiting in the wings as their distribution partners and publicists.

One of the heroes in that Oregon incident, Sheriff John Hanlin, refused to give the mass murderer what he wanted. "I won't give him the credit he probably sought with this horrific and cowardly act," Hanlin told the press. "You will never hear me mention his name."

Hanlin was right: It's the names of the victims we should know, not the evil gunmen.

Man Mourns Victims of Texas School Shooting
A man mourns at a makeshift memorial for the Robb Elementary School shooting victims outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Texas on May 27. Getty Images/Chandan Khanna/AFP

NoNotoriety.com is a website dedicated to not giving mass killers the attention they crave. The site, launched after the Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting in 2012, expressed the wishes of many of the victims' families:

"In an effort to reduce future tragedies, we challenge the media, calling for responsible media coverage for the sake of public safety when reporting on individuals who commit or attempt acts of rampage mass violence thereby depriving violent like-minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave."

It's not some obscure theory, the idea that the media play a part in these mass-shooter suicides. In 1987, four teenagers in Bergenfield, New Jersey, entered a car in a garage after making a suicide pact, started the engine and died minutes later of carbon monoxide poisoning. The national media descended in full force.

I remember because my dad was the superintendent of schools in that town at the time. The media's appetite for gruesome details was insatiable. "The vultures," a school board member called them. Townies agreed.

In the months afterward, a rash of similar suicides erupted nationwide, leading The New York Times to run a front-page headline that put media coverage in the crosshairs: "Pattern of Death: Copycat Suicides Among Youths."

"Hearing about a suicide moves those teenagers at risk closer to doing it themselves," David Shaffer, then head of the Suicide Research Unit at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, told the Times. "The news coverage of teenage suicides can portray the victims as martyrs of sorts, and the more sentimentalized it is, the more legitimate—even heroic—it may seem to some teenagers."

There's a name for young people's imitation of highly publicized suicides: "Werther syndrome," named after the hero of Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the story, Werther commits suicide as a way of exiting a hopeless love triangle. The book was banned in some European countries because there was a rash of suicides by young men who read it. "Teenagers are highly imitative, influenced by fads and fashions in general," David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego, told the Times.

In his studies, Phillips found a significant rise in suicides after a well-publicized case. The rise was greatest among teenagers. "Hearing about a suicide seems to make those who are vulnerable feel they have permission to do it," Phillips said.

The phenomenon led to a 1994 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) titled "Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide." "Evidence suggests that the effect of contagion is not confined to suicides occurring in discrete geographic areas," the report said. "In particular, nonfictional newspaper and television coverage of suicide has been associated with a statistically significant excess of suicides."

The CDC also said that suicide is the result of a complex interaction of many factors, usually involving a history of deep psychosocial problems.

Add three decades and the impact of social media and 24-7 cable news to the mix, and add a twist—mass shooting suicide—and you may wonder why no members of the media are talking about their role in these events.

In the weeks to come, there should be debates about more than the Second Amendment. Let's talk about the First Amendment too. Should the media be compelled to never name the name of these killers?

Let's talk about the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments too—the criminal justice amendments that protect would-be criminals from unlawful searches and arrests and unjust trials. These amendments aren't a constitutional bug; they're features, with some costs to safety. But our founders understood that the state itself could become the criminals, an even bigger cost to society.

One of the best movies of 2014 was Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal starred as a photographer whose specialty was getting photos at the scene of an accident or crime and selling them to local news stations. By the movie's end, Gyllenhaal's creepy character was a participant in the news, causing a shootout that may never have happened but for his presence.

An overwhelming majority of Americans distrust journalists for profiting from human grief. And they wonder if these mass-suicide shootings would happen as often if the media didn't aid and abet the ambitions of these evil killers.

That's something worth pondering as the Uvalde blame game continues ad nauseam on the airwaves and in our neighborhoods.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.

Updated 06/21/2022, at 2:30 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information.