Journalists agree that they have to avoid glorifying perpetrators in news reporting. But gaps in best practices continue to appear in coverage

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After high-profile tragedies, the risk of inspiring copycats is real. But in the wake of the Nova Scotia shooting, some journalists have been grappling with the nuances behind how we cover mass murderers. 

Since the Portapique, N.S. shooting, a debate around best practices when covering horrific crimes was reinvigorated in media circles, with journalistic tenets around the focus on perpetrators going under the microscope. On the one hand, the public has a right to know who committed the crime and why. On the other, research indicates there are risks of inspiring more attacks by giving notoriety to the perpetrators. While the decision to provide the names and backgrounds of killers raises thorny questions, doing so can in many ways serve the same public interests the other camp says it’s trying to protect.

“As a society … we have to try to come to grips with a terrible crime like this,” said Stephen Maher, a contributing editor at Maclean’s. “That’s the job of the media, to say this crime has happened — why?”

The movement to stop naming shooters can be traced to 2012, when coverage of a mass shooting in a theatre in Aurora, Colo. -— which resulted in 12 deaths — put the spotlight on the shooter. Family members of one of the victims responded to the coverage by calling on media organizations to develop policies that avoid giving mass killers infamy. The “No Notoriety” movement encourages journalists to adopt specific practices when covering mass murders, including limiting using the name of the suspect, avoiding the inclusion of unnecessary details about their actions, and focusing more on victims.

Several high profile journalists, such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, pledged to avoid using a suspect’s name unless necessary, and other U.S. publications followed suit. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s appeal to media that it should avoid naming the shooter following the Nova Scotia tragedy, the debate made its way into Canadian journalism circles. 

While Canada has not had a comparable history of mass shootings as in the U.S., the Nova Scotia tragedy resurfaced a needed ethical debate in Canadian newsrooms. Although there was a general consensus that covering the shooter is important, there were major disparities on how.

“Crime can be a vehicle for telling about other societal issues,” says Katherine Laidlaw, a contributing editor at Toronto Life, who uses crime stories as a springboard to delve into underlying factors. 

A year ago, Laidlaw wrote a Toronto Life story about Alek Minassian, the man charged in the Toronto van attack. Laidlaw says in that case, she explored why men want to inflict pain and death on women, in particular through subcultures that are becoming increasingly vocal online.

“I always try and ask myself before I embark on any story, what issue is this story rooted in?” she says. 

After the Portapique shooting, the Halifax Examiner broke news of the perpetrator’s history of violence against his domestic partner and others through an interview with the shooter’s former neighbour, uncovering the shooter’s personal history with misogynist violence, a connection that has emerged among perpetrators of mass killings. More recently, Maclean’s covered an unusual cash withdrawal of $475,000 the shooter made weeks before his rampage. In July, The Globe and Mail published a story about red flags from the mass murderer’s life years before the shooting, including brushes with the law from as far back as 2001 involving violence, death threats and the possession of weapons.

Some have argued that focusing too much on the killer’s background can glorify the attacker.

“Names and faces are not the problem,” wrote James Fox, a leading scholar of mass shootings in the U.S., in USA Today in 2018. “We sometimes come to know more about them — their interests and their disappointments — than we do about our next-door neighbours.”

Recent news coverage of the man now facing 22 charges after an armed intrusion of Rideau Hall focused variably on his ties with the Canadian military and shock around the arrest of a “‘good community member’ known for his friendly demeanour and for cooking garlic sausage his customers raved about.”  

Laidlaw says she works to avoid gratuitous details and ensure every piece of information she includes contributes toward answering her driving question. She recommends using spare language to avoid “engendering warmth where there shouldn’t be warmth” to stay focused on the broader purpose of the story.

Many journalists also emphasize putting more attention on the victims than on the attackers. This, too, is a heated topic.

In a 2015 list of best practices to prevent copycats, U.S.-based magazine Mother Jones suggests not to focus too much on the number of deaths, which research has shown can be a source of competition among killers.

Josh Greenberg, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, also advises caution when publishing interviews with survivors and others visibly experiencing trauma. 

“That’s the sort of content that copycats might feed off of,” he says. “They like to see other people suffer.”

Greenberg recommends that when writing about the victims of a tragedy, journalists should focus on their individual lives and accomplishments, instead of on “the trauma of their loss.” But he acknowledges it’s difficult to strike a balance. 

“A lot of survivors may want to tell their story, and so refusing a platform to explain the impact of loss brings a different set of ethical questions,” he says, adding that news organizations should have guidelines for these occasions and continually reflect on them. 

As far as completely refusing to name a killer, some say it can be counterproductive.

“If we treat them as … ‘He or She Must Not Be Named,’ that kind of works to treat them as the others that we can’t touch and we can’t investigate,” says Emily Hiltz, a professor at Carleton. “We wouldn’t want to make them more notorious in their ‘otherness.’” 

But even if many in the media industry believe covering mass killers is important, it doesn’t mean that every story should name the shooter.

Context is essential, Hiltz says. In an active shooter situation, for example, the public needs to know the perpetrator’s name and what the shooter looks like. But outside of that, she believes the name of the perpetrator should be downplayed, and that the photo isn’t needed at all.

“The name perhaps shouldn’t appear in the headline, it shouldn’t appear on a caption, or in the  lead part of the article, or upfront in a broadcast,” she says. “It should be more embedded.”

At the Toronto Star, while news coverage of the Nova Scotia tragedy included the perpetrator’s name and photo, columnist Bruce Arthur chose not to name the shooter in his column about the tragedy

“That just felt right to me,” he said in an interview, adding that he wasn’t writing on the motivations of the shooter and he wanted to avoid unnecessarily glorifying the perpetrator.

Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s outgoing public editor, outlined the steps the newspaper took to balance its coverage. “The murderer’s image has not appeared on the Star’s front page and his name is discouraged in headlines and other prominent display copy, both online and in the newspaper,” she wrote. 

Despite Arthur’s personal choice not to name the perpetrator of the Nova Scotia shooting, he believes it’s still important to cover the killer and understand his motivations.

“I don’t think anyone doesn’t want to know why someone does something like this,” he says.

While the Nova Scotia tragedy led many outlets to make conscious decisions to avoid glorifying the killer, it also shed light on disagreements across Canadian newsrooms on what is relevant when covering the perpetrator. As calls increase for a public inquiry into the crime, media organizations will have to answer these questions in order to to deliver vital information to the public without doing more harm.