U.S. Safety Panel Urges Media to Embrace ‘No Notoriety’ for School Shooters

By Mark Walsh — December 19, 2018 4 min read
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The Federal Commission on School Safety’s final report this week contains discussions of two areas where the media and mass school shootings intersect.

One is a relatively brief chapter on the potential effects of violent entertainment on school tragedies, something that federal reports in the wake of other major incidents have also addressed. The other is about the effects of press coverage of mass shootings.

“This is the first federal report to examine the issue of media coverage as it relates to the perpetuation of violence,” says the report, a point reiterated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in a conference call with reporters on Dec. 18.

In its report, the commission states: “Press coverage of school shootings is often sensational, which can exacerbate the trauma of those directly and indirectly affected and potentially incite successive events.” It says that reports indicate the alleged shooter in the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has “received letters of encouragement, greeting cards, and even money in prison,” all as a result of his high public profile based on media coverage.

Although the commission’s report names the Parkland suspect, Nikolas Cruz, in footnotes, it does not name him in the main text, a move evidently in keeping with one of its principal recommendations that media outlets adopt the “No Notoriety” campaign.

That campaign was founded by Tom and Caren Teves after their son Alexander C. Teves was shot and killed in the 2012 mass shooting in a Aurora, Colo., movie theater that resulted in 12 dead and 70 wounded.

The No Notoriety campaign works on the premise that the quest for notoriety and infamy is a well-known motivating factor in rampage mass killings and violent copycat crimes.

The campaign’s “protocol” calls on media outlets to limit the naming of the suspect or offender to one mention per story, and not in headlines or in prominently displayed photos. Among other elements, the protocol asks media outlets not to discuss self-serving statements or manifestos of suspects and to elevate the names and likenesses of victims to send the message that their lives are more important than the killer’s actions.

“The media has already set precedent by voluntarily changing their policies when reporting on victims of sexual assault, suicide, and on juveniles,” the Teves say in a question-and-answer feature on their website. “We’re saying it’s time for another policy change for the sake of public safety.”

President Donald Trump, speaking at a White House roundtable discussion Tuesday about the federal report, said that “launching a No Notoriety campaign ... would encourage the media not to use the names or, frankly, anything having to do with the shooters.”

“I see it all the time; they make these people famous,” Trump added “And they’re not famous; they’re opposite. They’re horrible, horrible people. I think that’s a very important one—No Notoriety campaign.”

The No Notoriety campaign mentions on its website that some journalism outlets and professional groups have embraced the philosophy. The campaign points to a 2015 decision by People magazine to avoid giving perpetrators of mass shootings greater notoriety. (People’s editor said in a letter to readers that year that “We will use strong caution when deciding whether to show these murderers’ photos or use their names.”)

The campaign also points to a 2016 decision by the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to support the No Notoriety campaign.

Of course, many journalists continue to name and profile school shooting suspects.

“This is a bad idea,” Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote in 2015 about the No Notoriety movement. “When you name an individual and tell his story, you give people important context for the backstory. If we had not named Seung-Hui Cho as the Virginia Tech assailant, his teachers might not have come forward to report they had voiced concerns about his mental health in the past.”

And in the Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year, Scott Kraft, the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, said that profiles of mass shooters can hold public officials accountable.

“As journalists, we’re in the business of collecting information and publishing information,” Kraft told the magazine. “Knowing who the perpetrators of these mass shootings are, what motivated them, those things are important for the public to know.”

Advice to School Disticts, Parents

The federal commission’s report also has media suggestions for state and local authorities, including school districts, in responding to mass shootings.

“As they examine their media plans, schools should coordinate with local law enforcement and other community leaders on a regular basis to ensure consistent messaging and clear lines of authority,” the report says.

In the commission’s chapter on “Violent Entertainment and Ratings Systems,” the report notes that “violent content is ubiquitous across” platforms including television, video games, social media, music, movies, graphic novels, and books “and continues to grow.”

The chapter includes a brief discussion of a decades-old debate—whether exposure to violence in media is a factor in school shootings or other forms of mayhem—without drawing any firm conclusions. In a discussion of the various forms of violence ratings systems for movies, television, videogames, and music, the report concludes that “parents are best positioned to determine which forms of entertainment are appropriate for their children.”

Neither chapter of the report addresses a phenomenon reported on by Education Week last summer, after this year’s school shootings in Parkland and in Santa Fe, Texas—the depictions of fictional stories about school violence itself in movies, TV shows, videogames, theater, and literature, as well as a rise in young adult fiction addressing such themes.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.