Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, tried to deprive his nephews of the glory and esteem many perpetrators seek when they commit massively violent acts.
“Losers,” Mr. Tsarni said. They were losers.
Mr. Tsarni could have called them evil or deranged. But these boys, according to their uncle, were too pathetic to merit even those normally undesirable labels. They were losers, said Mr. Tsarni. They couldn’t “settle themselves,” so they took it out on others. There could be no real glory in that.
Although probably unintentional, Mr. Tsarni’s belittling was pragmatic considering the ever-expanding collection of research showing a contagion effect around the ways we typically talk about perpetrators of mass violence. Media coverage of mass shootings, which often describes killers as heartless, destructive and cruel, can function to encourage deranged wannabes to stage their own copycat attacks. One 2018 discussion paper actually found the volume of media coverage can be used to predict the likelihood of a mass shooting the week after an initial incident.
For this reason, there is often a push in the aftermath of this kind of unspeakable violence to focus on the victims and not even speak the perpetrator’s name. A campaign called “No Notoriety” was created after the 2012 movie-theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., to promote precisely this message: Deprive mass shooters of the attention so many of them seek. “No Name. No photo. No Notoriety.”
Tragically, it is again Canada’s turn to contemplate how and if to incorporate that directive.
It was never possible to keep Gabriel Wortman’s name out of the press entirely. In fact, police released his name and picture Sunday morning precisely so it could be circulated during what was then still an active-shooter situation. By the time Mr. Wortman was dead, he had killed 22 people.
In response to the tragedy, and after offering his own condolences, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a request of Canadian media: Avoid mentioning the killer’s name and showing his picture. “Let us instead focus all our intention and attention on the lives we lost and the families and friends who grieve.”
It sounded like a righteous request. Indeed, focusing on the victims and writing profiles of the deceased has been many journalists’ chief concerns in the early days after the attack. But it is simply not practical to request that “all our attention” focus on the effect, and not the cause, of a massacre that seems so utterly senseless. The Prime Minister may opt himself to avoid using the perpetrator’s name, but he should not be asking media – however worthy it is in his mind – to do the same. Editorial guidelines are crafted by media organizations, not by the government.
Most organizations are conscious not to report on the perpetrators in ways that might unintentionally extol them. Occasionally they fail spectacularly, as Rolling Stone magazine did in 2013 when it put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, looking like a rock star. But as research evolves, media adapt. We’ve learned not to publish manifestos verbatim and to try to avoid terms that might inspire competition from copycats.
Views on avoiding the names and pictures of perpetrators, however, are more mixed. That’s because, despite evidence of the contagion effect, there’s also a recognition that conspiracy theories flourish where there is an absence of clear, accurate information.
Media reports that refer only or nearly exclusively to “the perpetrator” will invite rabid speculation on what else mainstream news is not reporting, yielding space (and perhaps more importantly, Google search results) to fringe websites eager to connect the killer's name to their pet obsession. There were a handful of “reports,” for example (unsubstantiated and false, of course) that there was a second, Muslim shooter responsible for the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017.
For every mass shooting or act of violence, one group or another will try to hijack the perpetrator’s supposed cause to make a point. The media’s job is to sift through the noise to find the facts, which involves investigating and reporting on the perpetrator – the real one, identified by name – to avoid creating a vacuum for fake news such as imagined second shooters.
There is no perfect solution. But perhaps we should pay heed to the example set by Ruslan Tsarni and minimize these small men as much as editorial guidelines will allow. Indeed, these violent perpetrators are not cartoonish super-villains as much as they are pathetic, lonely losers. And while there is still much to uncover, it seems Gabriel Wortman was yet another weak man, indistinguishable from a pitiful bunch.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.