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Challenging our conventions around naming mass shooters

Countries around the world value the public’s right to know. But that principle can look very different place to place Continue Reading Challenging our conventions around naming mass shooters

At the centre of the debate about whether news media should have used the name and photograph of the Nova Scotia mass shooter lies a central journalistic tenet: Public information belongs to the public.

Should it be pulled up by its roots?

Journalists in this country hold dear to the belief that the public has a right to all newsworthy information about alleged criminals and their behaviour.  To withhold such material—a name, bits of personal history, education, and so on—is a dereliction of duty, Canadian, American, English and Irish journalists told us repeatedly in interviews we conducted over the past 10 years in 10 different countries. One Irish reporter said, pithily, “If it’s public information, it’s the public’s right to have it. I am not a sieve.”

Most Canadian journalists assume journalists everywhere in the free world nod in agreement. They are surprised to learn that they don’t.

Reporters in the English-speaking countries we visited believe that it is the role of journalism in a democracy to provide citizens with the information they need to assess civic events and issues, and to be free and self-governing. When a crime occurs, it is of paramount importance that community members can understand why this happened. That means digging into the background of accused persons and sometimes using facts gleaned from their personal history to point to reasons for an act of extreme violence. As one American newspaper editor noted about this press penchant for background, “It’s not prurient. It matters—all these details matter because they can tell us why.”

That specificity can also point out when there are tears in the social fabric or whether institutions, ostensibly operating in the interests of all citizens, are falling short of their obligations. These contributing or underlying factors deserve a public airing so they can be evaluated, and inadequacies can be addressed. Ideally, we learn what went wrong, fix the rips, and they never happen again. 

But journalists in much of Europe interpret the principle of the “public’s right to know” differently.  In the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, for example, while crime is reported, stories are sometimes generalized. Criminals are rarely fully identified: journalists might use a first name and last initial, initials only, or tell the story with few details beyond gender and perhaps age. When photographs are used, accused persons usually appear with a black band across the eyes. 

The reasons for this differing journalistic practice gives Canadian journalists food for thought in this current debate.

For some journalists in Canada, withholding the identity of the Nova Scotia shooter denies him what they believe he wanted from his violent act: large-scale public infamy. And they say he should be punished and shunned, not rewarded. 

One broadcast reporter spoke to his feelings as he told us about the moment of conviction of a child killer in Ontario. “This guy was so arrogant, so willing to impose his personality on everyone else. Then the jury says, on count one of murder, we find Michael Thomas Rafferty guilty, he collapsed a little bit. It was like all that confidence and arrogance was deflated.” 

Naming a convicted person like Rafferty is essential, this reporter noted, because, “If you had to reduce his name to initials, you couldn’t track him down after the fact. You need the press to track him down.” 

Another national columnist pointed to a different reason. “In Canada, we like to know who wears the white or the black hats,” by which he meant Canadians prefer clarity about who the good and the bad folks are.

Crime reporting in the Netherlands lives in a grayer zone, as the central reasons Dutch journalists give for withholding names is quite different. They want to protect the criminal’s innocent family—particularly children—from harm.  They want to protect the presumption of innocence for those who will go to trial, and they want those who serve time to be able to return to their communities rehabilitated and able to reintegrate and live as a contributing member of society, with as little stigma as possible. 

Canadians are right to question what is standard practice here because crime coverage routines ought never to become routine. Journalists’ choices are mostly derived from and ultimately reflect a country’s deeper attitudes about criminality, punishment, justice, and even safety. 

Perhaps, given that there is evidence that infamy is the mass shooters’ goal and that extensive coverage encourages copycats, moving a name lower into a story, or not using it at all, would equate to a safer Canada. It may be, however, that anonymizing a mass shooter could reduce our ability to point fingers, and to know when one of us wears the black hat. It’s a balance. It’s about values. 

For the Dutch, media coverage ought not to equate to punishment. “That is for the courts and the justice system, not us,” one reporter based in Amsterdam told us. Beyond the finger pointing, there is also the idea that when accused persons are not named, each of us could imagine being in such a situation. Coverage in this sense does not make someone into an aberration, a monster, or a one-off. Like a stock character in a fairy tale, not naming names can allow audience members to think, “there but for the grace go I.”

The Dutch give us cause to consider what is gained and what is lost by different practices. Comparison and public debate that includes journalists and citizens is healthy. Such conversations make clear what is often unexamined and allow for revaluation and adjustment, should that be required.

Romayne Smith Fullerton and Maggie Jones Patterson have written a book titled, Murder in Our Midst: Comparing the Ethics of Crime Coverage in a Globalized Age. It’s being published by Oxford University Press in November.