Should the media name mass murderers? Criminologist says yes, to an extent
After New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that she would never utter the name of the man responsible for murdering 50 people inside two mosques last week in order to prevent him from achieving notoriety, a criminologist argues that naming killers is important, but glamourizing them is not.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has written about serial and mass murder, said it’s OK for the media and public figures to name a mass murderer and publish their image because it’s relevant to the story.
However, he said in-depth profiles and details about the killer’s past is unnecessary.
“We go overboard between identifying the killer, which is news, and glamourizing the killer, which is excessive,” he explained to CTV’s Your Morning from Boston on Wednesday.
Fox cited the example of Stephen Paddock, who shot 58 people to death and injured nearly 900 others at a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017.
“Sure, we knew his name and his face, but we also know what shoe size he wore, we know what he ate before the shooting, we know what casino game he liked, we know about his karaoke interest, we even have pictures of him from his high school year book on his tennis team,” he said. “As if all this stuff really matters or helps us understand the crime. It doesn’t.”
Despite a months-long investigation, the FBI has still been unable to determine Paddock’s motive for the massacre.
Although the accused New Zealand shooter expressed a desire for attention in a hate-filled message sent to Ardern’s office and a video he livestreamed on Facebook of the attack, Fox said fame is typically not the primary motivation for these kinds of killers.
“They commit the crime out of hate, for revenge, sometimes for profit,” he said.
The criminologist also noted that most mass murderers don’t even see their own media coverage because they take their own lives or they’re shot by police during the event. If they do survive, they’re usually arrested soon after.
As for the oft-cited concern that naming mass murderers will inspire other potential killers to copy them, Fox said it’s not the person behind the attacks that encourages them, but the act itself.
“We all know that 50 people were killed in New Zealand and it had to do with hate and Muslims as victims,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the killer’s name is or what his face looks like. That’s what drives like-minded individuals. That’s what they admire. That’s what they applaud. Not the name itself.”
Fox said he thinks media outlets should continue to publish the name and images of murderers, but they should avoid sharing excessive details about them.
“Let’s not go back into the biography of the killer because that just makes them larger than life in the eyes of other people who might see him as a hero,” he said.
For those who argue that knowing as much as possible about a criminal’s history can help identify a future killer, Fox disagrees.
“No matter how much we know about a perpetrator, that’s not going to help us identify the next perpetrator,” he said. “These are rare events fortunately. They are impossible to predict.”