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Coverage of the Umpqua Community College shooting

by on October 5, 2015

Following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon on Thursday, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin requested directly to the media to not name the shooter. Hanlin believed that this would glorify and sensationalize the shooter; giving him the notoriety he probably wanted.

As a result, a lot of networks accepted this request, such as Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. However, not everyone felt that this was the correct decision. An article published in the Washington Post called Media: Please ignore Oregon sheriff’s appeal never to mention shooter’s name, explains why the media should not be so quick to accept Hanlin’s request. Author Erik Wemple believes that it is a journalist’s obligation to report all of the information, including the shooter’s name. Many media organizations think that his name is relevant information that must be known.

Is withholding the shooters name from the public unethical? Does it go against a journalist’s core values of being honest? Or, would it minimize future shootings because it proves that infamy no longer comes from committing such crimes? Times like these are when journalists really have to decide where they draw the line in ethics, and whether they favor a deontological or teleological perspective.

As stated in the article, there are a handful of journalists who said that showing the shooter’s name and photograph on a TV news broadcast would cause more harm than if printed in a daily newspaper. They said that TV gives infamy, whereas print is less glorious. However, I must disagree. Just as Erik Wemple points out, “Who says that deranged mass killers don’t value print?” Yes, print and broadcast journalism vary in format, but this should not have an affect on the decision to identify the shooter. Facts should not be glorified simply because they are presented on a TV screen as opposed to text on a page.

Furthermore, “Journalists cannot make their calls based on notions that may be swimming in the minds of the insane.” This exemplifies the risk a journalist takes when relying on teleology to make a decision, because we cannot predict whether or not this will have an effect on future shootings. But, what if Hanlin’s request was the solution we have been waiting for since these mass killings have become increasingly “popular”? Does identifying the shooter really have an affect on the story? If the media identified each of the victims and explained exactly what occurred, what does calling him “Chris Harper Mercer” as opposed to “the shooter” change about the chain of events?

When I first heard Hanlin’s request, my immediate thought was yes I agree that the shooter does not deserve to become notorious like every other mass shooter seems to be. But, when reevaluating the situation and looking at it from a journalistic point of view, the answer is not that simple.

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