Self-censoring on mass shootings is a slippery slope

Self-censoring on mass shootings is a slippery slope
© JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I read with interest a recent article by Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization, entitled, “Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm.” It was accompanied by the following tweet from Poynter’s account: “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.”

“In a pivot from coverage of years past, the shooter’s name often isn’t mentioned at all,” notes Poynter’s Kelly McBride. “In the small number of stories where journalists deem the name relevant, it usually appears one-third of the way into the story. Suspect names rarely appear in headlines, teasers or tweets.”

The idea behind this is that the media should not give publicity to mass-killers because that is what the killers seek — attention, fame — and doing so can encourage others to copy them.

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McBride is careful not to endorse some sort of wholesale media censorship of the names of shooters. But it seems to me we’re getting pretty close to that.

I worry about a bigger picture — that we may be cheering on censorship of public information under the guise of “the public good.”

My own view is that only under very limited circumstances, and on a case-by-case basis, should we make advance policy decisions to artificially minimize information or censor it from the public’s view. After all, the information in this instance is public in nature. It is collected by public officials on our behalf, and it belongs to us. It seems contrary to the mission of reporting for the news media to agree to make public information artificially less public.

There’s also concern about the proverbial slippery slope.

Maybe you approve of a news media agreement to withhold the names of horrible killers so as not to inadvertently glorify them or inspire copycats. But what about tomorrow?

What if, tomorrow, we decide as a group not to report certain arguments of political candidates because we determine those arguments are not in the best interests of the public?

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What if, the next day, we decide as a group to censor certain political candidates entirely because we determine their positions are objectionable?

To a large degree, some in the news media already have started down that path. They declared Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE to be so objectionable that they suspended some of their normal journalistic practices. Trump, they argued, is so uniquely dangerous that it requires an unprecedented approach: It requires us to step away from the ethical tenets we claimed to follow for years.

You may be among those who are perfectly happy to have the media band together and apply a different standard of reporting to Trump.

But what if, tomorrow, the same treatment is given to a politician or official with whom you agree? What if the slippery slope leads us down a path where we decide to pretend certain political candidates don’t exist at all because we — the media — together determine they are bad? They hold a news conference? We don’t report on it. They take a position on an important issue? We ignore it.

Beyond politics, what if, the next day, we decide as a group to censor other facts, studies and views we find objectionable related to the court system, environmental dangers, our food and drugs, financial issues or consumer safety?

I don’t think these are far-fetched questions to ask in today’s environment.

I think it is possible for the media to cover mass shootings in a way that strikes a balance between unintentional glorification and censorship under the guise of advocacy. And our  collective energy might be better spent uniting on issues such as recommitting to fairness and accuracy, maintaining our journalistic standards whether or not we like the subject of our reporting, and improving our credibility by not making sloppy mistakes.

Not naming mass shooters? I get it. But I think media groupthink and censorship, even in the name of the public good, are a dangerous mix.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”