How do we avoid giving attention to those who seek infamy?
Did Sol Pais just want a lot of people to know about her, to hear her name over and over again in connection with big news? For that matter, what about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who may have been Pais’ inspiration?
Harris and Klebold were the boys who carried out the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado 20 years ago this month. They shot 12 students and a teacher to death before committing suicide.
Pais, an 18-year-old in Florida, had been fascinated with the Columbine killings. Some who knew her used the word “obsessed.”
So, when she disappeared last week, the authorities were tipped off that she might be headed for Colorado to … well, no one knows what she planned initially. We do know that she went to a Denver gun shop and purchased a shotgun (legally). She went to a campground and used the weapon to kill herself. But until she was found, some schools in the area were shut down in fear she planned to stage her own school massacre.
Should we in the press be talking about her at all? That’s one of the ethical debates journalists are having: Are some mass murderers encouraged by the prospect of a sort of immortality in the media?
They see how we handle others. They know that the more horrific their deeds, the more attention they’ll get. Does that help spur some troubled minds to carry out massacres just to get noticed?
Possibly so, in at least some cases.
Among those in the media who worry at all about ethics these days, one concern is that we are supposed to report the news, not make it. Do we refer to people such as Harris and Klebold merely as “the killers” to avoid encouraging others to emulate them and make the kind of news we dread?
Trust me on this: It’s quite a debate in my profession.
My knee-jerk reaction is that informing people as completely and accurately as possible does more good than harm. And, there’s the slippery slope concern: If we stop reporting the names of mass killers, what about those who take individual lives? Could they be out for publicity, too?
Where do we stop? Was the guy in the bar fight shown on the police report just looking to get his name in the paper? What about the kids who called in the false bomb threat to their school? Did they just want to see a headline on the event to see that they’d shaken some people up?
At what point do I start getting more calls from people complaining that we didn’t publish their names in connection with crimes than from those angry that we did?
Before you laugh at that, consider the preoccupation quite a few people seem to have with taking “selfies” of themselves and posting them on the internet. Clearly, a lot of people seem to be desperate for others to notice them.
And that’s another concern that may well settle the issue for those of us in the conventional press. No matter what we do about mass murderers, they’ll get their attention. All they have to do is take a selfie or record a video clip and put it out there.
Lots of people will pass it on.
And millions more will be searching for it.
Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register.