Orlando gunman’s face, name become journalism challenge
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anderson Cooper faced the camera, his voice freighted with emotion, and took a stand on covering the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
“We will not say the gunman’s name or show his photograph,” Cooper told CNN viewers on a telecast Monday. “It’s been shown far too much already.”
The withholding of such information is an unusual but not unprecedented move by a reporter or news organization, one that some media experts say can be justified.
Cooper said on-air that his intention was to keep the focus where it belonged, on the 49 people who died in last weekend’s nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, and not on the killer. He went on to identify and describe each of the known victims.
That approach is both journalistically sound and potentially valuable, given findings that people who commit such high-profile crimes have a “sick desire to become famous and known for what they did,” said Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University.
Reporting an attacker’s name could encourage other people who might seek to gain their own violent measure of dark fame, Levinson said.
“The purpose of journalism is to keep the public informed but not when that could entail a loss of life,” he said.
With any high-profile gunman’s identity and photo widely available through multiple news and social media outlets, is there value in one reporter’s black-out?
Yes, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Given the U.S. rate of mass shootings, a reporter who disrupts the standard narrative by keeping a killer in the shadows “is inviting us to step back and experience this as not just one more (attack) but in its own right,” Jamieson said.
Through a CNN spokeswoman, Cooper declined comment Tuesday on his decision regarding Omar Mateen, who was shot to death after killing and injuring some 100 people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
While Cooper’s approach to the Florida gunman appears to be unique among major TV network and cable reporters and their outlets, it’s a path taken by others in reporting on previous mass killings.
After an Oregon community college was attacked last fall, Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly didn’t refer to the gunman by name. But she did identify Mateen, a decision explained by Tom Lowell, Kelly’s executive producer.
“When we encounter an event where it becomes apparent that the shooter was driven by the desire for infamy, we decline to help,” Lowell said in a statement.
But when it’s clear there is some other primary motive such as terrorism or ideology, then the killer typically will be identified, Lowell said. He cited as examples Orlando and a 2015 attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado.
During his prolonged assault on the gay nightclub, Mateen made a 911 call in which he professed allegiance to the Islamic State group.
In this visual age, a photo carries as much if not more weight than words, and Cooper’s refusal to air the many selfie images available of Mateen is a tacit acknowledgement of that.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday, host Joe Scarborough brought up the photos in questioning the media’s attention to such killers, among them the Boston marathon bomber, who Scarborough said was “glorified” with a Rolling Stone cover image.
“At what point do we stop putting their pictures up? At what point do we stop putting their names?” he said.
That is unlikely to happen, according to one expert, and for good reason.
“What Cooper is doing is basically feel-good for him, and that’s fine. If somehow all journalists and websites and law enforcement all conspired to keep a name secret, which is impossible, then I would object to that,” said David Rubin, professor and retired dean of Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“It is the job of the media to report information and not withhold information,” he said.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber .
This story has been corrected to say Anderson Cooper declined comment through a spokeswoman, not spokesman.