Sunday, October 11, 2015

"If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Don't Say Anything At All;" Unless You're A Journalist

Kelli Wanamaker

"Can you find me a problem that gets any better by not talking about it?" Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, asked, in regards to the national debate between privacy and transparency in news media coverage. Tompkin’s comment specifically refers to the Oregon sheriff's decision to withhold the name of the gunman in the Umpqua Community College shooting: "I will not give him the credit he probably sought prior to this horrific and cowardly act," Hanlin said, implying that he hoped the media wouldn't either.

This struggle between privacy and transparency extends beyond the decision to release or withhold a gunman’s name. Society as a whole views the press as vultures who callously invade a subject’s privacy in order to collect competitive news content. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics addresses the concern of privacy of victims and their families under the section to “minimize harm.”

But just because journalists must respect the grieving family of a victim, doesn't mean that they should outright neglect to report truth in  fear of a few twisted members of society finding the heinous acts of a gunman inspirational.

In his handling of the Oregon shooting, Sheriff Hannifin attempted to deprive the public of important journalistic fact, under the grounds of supposedly depriving a gunman of his desire for notoriety. Interestingly enough, this same sheriff has a history of resisting the very gun-control laws that might have prevented this tragedy (The Washington Post reported that Harper-Mercer had bought most of his guns himself: all sold legally to an adolescent with a history of severe mental illness… Huff Post discovered a letter that Sheriff Hanlin had penned to Joe Biden, two years ago, warning that he would not enforce any legislation passed down from the federal government to tighten restriction on firearms!)
But I digress. 

The media must provide the shooter’s name to adhere to another SPJ Code of Ethics, as well as fulfilling the main purpose of journalism: to “seek truth and report it!”

Supporters of Sheriff Hanlin’s decision expressed concern that covering the life of the shooter would somehow glorify his actions, and encourage other troubled young men to follow in his example. But news coverage of the identity of a murderer hardly qualifies as glorification. Regardless of the twisted thoughts of a small minority of aspiring shooters, the majority of America will certainly not covet the the actions of Chris Harper Mercer. In fact, if you asked most people, they would probably say that they hate him. Hitler and Stalin are also famous; but it’s not because they’re well-liked...

In his opinion piece, It Doesn’t Matter ‘What He Wanted.’ Chris Harper Mercer Murdered 9 People and We Need to Name Him, Justin Peters points out that“asking journalists to refrain from reporting the news is something that is ultimately much worse for society than giving the shooter ‘what he wanted.’’

Another important reason to provide the identity of a gunman includes the importance of recognizing him as a - very sick- person. By using his name we acknowledge his humanity, and we can begin to discuss the ravaged mental state that young men like Mercer experience to want to shoot people at school. Yes, gun control is certainly a problem. And in Harper-Mercer’s case it certainly didn’t help that his mom was a gun-rights activist who allowed her ‘emotionally troubled’ son to own fourteen firearms. But the causality of these issues are complicated - they deserve not only our attention, but also our conversation! Being respectful doesn't mean ignoring the problem: it means having a respectful dialogue about the problem.

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