This week’s tragedy in Nova Scotia was unimaginable. A mass shooter took the lives of 22 great Canadians, including first responders and public servants helping us through the COVID-19 crisis. And, as we heard from the RCMP Friday, many of the victims were heroes trying to save others.
Given these facts, I understand the protective instinct of some readers who want the Globe to stop naming the gunman.
The argument against publishing the name of mass shooters or terrorist acts that claim lives is that the criminals responsible for the acts want notoriety, and we should not cave to this; rather, we should remember the names of those whose lives were so cruelly taken.
But rather than withhold his name, The Globe has taken steps to put the focus on the lives of the 22 victims, so we can all understand what has been lost, and mourn.
This week, The Globe published many stories from the families of the loved ones, who were described as “beautiful souls,” “a loving family,” “a gifted musician,” “a health care worker,” “a beloved teacher” and “a loving mother and police officer.” There has been news on the ground from the province about how Nova Scotians pull together and how families can and will mourn.
Part of this continuing story, though, is understanding the motive of the shooter, and what warning signs, if any, there were there about his anger. There are questions about his odd obsession with policing memorabilia.
The Globe’s headline online Sunday night described that obsession in a headline as a “passion,” which was absolutely the wrong word. Written by an editor and not by the reporters, it was caught about 15 minutes after publication and changed. A tweet with the unfortunate first wording was also published. The Globe later apologized on Twitter and deleted it.
That’s not an excuse for the error. But to correct the initial story and headline almost immediately and later apologize and delete the tweet was the right thing to do.
The stories about the gunman need to be focused on what he did and why – if we can know. Where did the blind hatred and unspeakable violence come from and could it have been stopped? We are hearing about the warning signs, but need to know much more. What weapons did he use and how did he get them? And what about the authentic RCMP uniform and the replica RCMP cruiser?
Any future stories need to keep that front of mind. What were the warning signs? Who knew? Did he get help from someone? And what lessons should society and the police take from this?
In exploring all of those questions, his name will be mentioned, and it must be. News reports are part of the public record and the historical record. However, it is best if his name is used sparingly, especially in headlines, and any decision to use his photo should be made with care.
The Globe’s code of conduct says that it is justifiable for the paper to show images of people traumatized by violence, provided the images are historically relevant and/or advance the story in a serious and considered manner, convey information relevant to the story, and are not intended primarily to shock readers or viewers.
That principle is a good one to consider.
The call to not name has been an ongoing issue in the United States where, before COVID-19, mass shootings were frequent. It became a rallying cry after the movie-theatre shooting in Aurora, Col. Media coverage at the time included too many photographs of him, as well as of other gunmen, some shown heavily armed, on TV and in print and digital.
This type of coverage is what gives them notoriety, not responsible news coverage that might include a shooter’s name.
Earlier this week, Globe columnist Robyn Urback wrote about the Prime Minister calling on media to avoid using the killer’s name and focus all of our attention on the lives we lost.
As she said, that’s not practical. “…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.”
The media’s role is to report the details of this tragedy and that may be hard to hear, especially during a time of grief. But the shooter’s name and the details still to come of his motivation are important to report. As we learn more details, we can understand as a society where to look, in terms of changes to police policy, understanding the danger of look-alike police vehicles, where and what type of guns are coming in and how to protect women from violence.
To me, the key is to be careful and sensitive to the grief, keeping a focus on the heroes who tragically died, while giving the most complete understanding and reporting of what happened in the rampage.