I have written many, many times about this before (because, unfortunately, I’ve had so many occasions to do so). But Slate has outdone me here:
Key sentence: “Journalists are not supposed to elide relevant facts when reporting a news story just because reporting those facts might strike some people as offensive or wrong.”
This is perhaps the most common refrain that journalists hear in the aftermath of tragedies. Why glorify the guy? Why upset people with details?
First question first.
Mentioning the suspect’s name and story isn’t glorifying anyone. It’s reporting the truth, which is (ideally) the point of journalism. It has a purpose — aside from simply disseminating the facts (which will always be needed in a world where conjecture would otherwise swirl in a vacuum), it can possibly start a conversation as to why he did it and how to thwart such ills in the future.
“But you’re giving the killer the notoriety he wanted!”
Instead of complaining that disclosing a shooter’s name will inspire copycats, maybe we should ask why, in the supposedly richest and most prosperous nation the world, we have so many people inspired to damage society. Where does that nihilistic feeling of nothing to lose come from? Is it the economy? Is it mental illness? Both? Neither? All of the above and more? Maybe confront those ills first. People who are mentally sound and happy with their lives don’t massacre others.
Second question: “Why upset people with details?”
This conveys a profound misunderstanding of what journalism is and what it does. Playing to the most sensitive sensibilities would barely let the weather report get out.
Journalists constantly exercise discretion based on their audience, beat, relevance of information and other numerous factors. But the primary standard is the truth. If something is known and there is no pressing reason to keep it under wraps (such as lack of official confirmation or that it’s an unreleased, sensitive detail in an investigation), then it must get out there. It’s not always what we want to see or hear, but that (as I’ve said so many times before) is the nature of news. How we absorb it (or not) is up to our discretion as individuals.
The primary hallmark of democracy is an open flow of information. Censoring news, however supposedly noble the intent, violates that standard. In a free world, we have the freedom to turn away. Those who want to know deserve to know.