Will Keeping Mass Killers Out of the Media Spotlight Save Lives?

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Aurora vigil

Thousands of people from Aurora, other parts of Colorado and the rest of the nation gathered near the Century 16 Movie Theater to mourn and celebrate the lives of the victims days after the July 20, 2012 massacre. Photo by Ryan Dearth via Flickr

When authorities in Texas made a point of not mentioning the name of a man who killed 26 people during Sunday church services in November, saying they did not want to glorify him, their gesture was only the most recent expression of a sentiment that has found growing support in law enforcement and journalism.

The notion that rampage killers act, in part, out of a craving for attention—the so-called “contagion effect”—has long found support in psychiatric and scholarly thought. But the popular urge to curb the problem by changing how journalists cover mass shootings can trace its roots to a moment on CNN in 2012, three days after the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre, when Tom Teves, an anguished father of one of the shooting victims, lashed out at news-coverage priorities.

“Why are we talking about that person?” Teves asked after the shooter’s first court appearance ended up plastering the airwaves and social media with his bug-eyed, orange-haired visage. Why not ignore him, Teves challenged—and focus instead on victims like Teves’ son Alex, 24, who was killed after heroically jumping into the line of fire to shield his girlfriend?

Alex Teves

Alex Teves. Photo courtesy Caren and Tom Teves

In the more than five years since, Teves’ first reaction grew into the No Notoriety campaign that Teves and his wife Caren run from their home in Phoenix. It has been endorsed by major law enforcement groups and a number of media figures, including Teves’ original CNN interviewer, Anderson Cooper.

Others have mounted like-minded efforts, among them the FBI-endorsed Don’t Name Them campaign developed by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University; and guidelines crafted by Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Mother Jones magazine. But, thanks to the Teves’ flair for branding, and their stature as a murder victim’s survivors, theirs has gotten much of the attention.

Aurora victims

Photo courtesy No Notoriety

While No Notoriety’s approach is simple—urging journalists to curtail “gratuitous” uses of shooters’ names and likenesses—applying its standards has been anything but.

TCR contributor Mark Obbie spoke to Tom and Caren Teves recently about why they do this work, the evolution of their idea, and their frustration with a news industry that they see as obsessed with profit over all else. The conversation transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

The Crime Report: Your interview with Anderson Cooper, the very first appearance you made about this, gave me the impression that this idea came to you fairly spontaneously. Is that right?

Tom Teves: Yes and no. It’s something that I’ve thought of in the back of my mind, that glorifying killers was wrong. But, honestly, I didn’t even think to do it until I watched the lead-up to us being on camera, and it was still all about the killer. And I was like, “Anderson, can you go 12 seconds without talking about him, without saying his name?” In the days before that, the only information that we could get from the news media was about the killer.

Caren Teves: This was at the time when we had no idea what had happened to Alex. We were on vacation in Hawaii. We just got a phone call from his girlfriend saying that there was a shooting.

TT: So then we went on the news and went online and tried to find out what’s going on. We were using everything. We were calling and calling and calling. But there was no information.

CT: All we kept seeing was information focused on the shooter, nothing about the victims, nothing about where people can call if they had missing loved ones, or where to convene in Denver, or what phone numbers to call. Nothing. It was just all about this evil thing, what he did, his background, his parents, where he lived, what he looked like, his Facebook page, you know, where he went to school — everything surrounding this individual, and meanwhile we’re trying to find out if our son is still alive.

TT: Here’s somebody who snuck up behind a whole bunch of people with an automatic weapon where they were powerless, actually planned it out so they’d be as powerless as possible, and mowed them down with armor-piercing bullets. And we’re making this thing into a hero? It should be the scourge of our society.

CT: So fast-forward from Hawaii to us landing in Denver. We were just too distraught to speak to anyone. We had to hide in our hotel. But the media started trying to learn more about the victims, finally. And they were getting Alex’s picture wrong, and they couldn’t pronounce his name. So we said we have to come out of hiding to be able to get the correct information out there. That’s when Tom went and spoke to Anderson (Cooper). Unfortunately our son was killed and that gave us a national voice at that point. So Tom decided to use it. And that’s pretty much how it got started.

TCR: At the beginning, your idea sounded pretty absolute: Ignore the shooters entirely, not just who they are but why they acted. When I read your recommendations now, they sound more nuanced. How did your thinking change?

CT: We’re trying to be realistic.

TT: It was a spontaneous moment a day or two after my firstborn son was murdered. I wasn’t completely in my rational mind.

TCR: Understandably.

TT:I’m a businessman. I understand how business works. And I know you guys are all in business to make money. Nobody goes into business not to make money, including the non-profits. We have to set it up so that you can do your job. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, not with the sensationalist reporters who, you know, basically have no soul, but with people who want to actually run their craft and do a good job and really care about their place in society and how important journalism is to our republic. We wanted to set that up so that it could work.

We know you have to identify the person. What we’re saying is, if you have to say it, say the name once. We found articles that in six paragraphs—and this is true—the name was said 41 times. What we wanted to do was just get people to act responsibly. Don’t turn them into antiheroes. Certainly limit the use of their pictures. If you’re gonna show a picture, show ’em in shackles. Or better yet show ’em dead, ’cause that’s what these people are: 95 percent of them are suicidal people who want to go out in a blaze of glory. And you guys provide the glory. And that’s scary, because you can stop it.

CT: There was a lot more pushback in the beginning. But as we move forward and this is being more recognized, the pushback is not as much because the killers themselves are proving our point and the researchers’ point. They’re telling us themselves, through their manifestos and whatever they leave behind, “We are looking for this glory.” And they’re getting it. So they keep using it.

TCR: What about the argument by journalists that writing about the shooters helps prevent shootings because it makes everyone more aware of the warning signs?

TT: We never said, “Don’t say that.” We never said, “Don’t write every detail about them.” (Instead) we’ve said, “Do all the research that you want. But understand, as you’re doing the research, one of the material causes of the shootings is the (killers) want to be famous. Go and find out where (they) went to school, what happened with (their) mother, all the other stuff.” But you’re also going to find that almost every one of them, and every (mass shooter) in recent times, tracks back to other killers.

CT: In the Sandy Hook (school massacre), the killer had a chart. So, whenever we see “the worst mass shooting,” we cringe because that’s a benchmark. He had (a spreadsheet) of all previous mass shootings, how many people died. So they research other killers. And the research is readily available for that.

TT: The benchmark right now is like 60 and 500—60 people dead, 500 people shot. So the next person’s gonna have to do worse. Think about it.

Editor’s Note: In the Oct. 1 shootings in Las Vegas, 58 died, with 546 others injured; many but not all from gunshots.

CT: Yeah, it’s a terrifying thought.

TCR: Do you think your efforts have made this a topic of conversation during the coverage of recent mass shootings?

CT: This is not a new concept. This theory and this proven effect has been around forever. But unfortunately we were given a voice. Alex was horribly, brutally murdered by someone who just wanted to make a name for himself. At that point, that’s when people are knocking on your doors. So I think we did bring it to a topic of conversation. And if that moved the needle, then it moved the needle.

Tom and Caren Teves

TT: Believe me, I’d rather not have the collateral we have to get you to listen to us. I’d rather have my son back. But the reason Anderson Cooper listened to me is because my son was murdered. Now I said something that resonated. (Forensic psychiatrist) Park Dietz has been studying this. Nobody’s listening to him because, fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to live with what we have to live with, right?

CT: Where we’ve come the farthest with No Notoriety is to elevate the victims and the heroes. More media now show the names of the fallen and the heroes and they tell more of those stories.

TT: USA Today is one of the worst. They had a story about remembering the mass shooting victims of 2017. And it was a fairly long, well-written story. And I want to say in the front of my brain, thanks for starting to look at the victims. But the back of my brain says are you doing this just to give yourself some cover so the next time this happens you can sell a whole bunch of newspapers with the next jerk’s picture and splash them all over the place so that you have some cover, so you have some moral sort of high ground? You could make the argument that what the media wants is more victims so that you can continue to have compelling reasons to click, to tune in, to buy your newspapers.

TCR: Do you really think anybody thinks that way?

TT: You know, I don’t. But when I see really intelligent people whose job it is to look at facts and report facts and make decisions on facts completely ignore the magnitude of data and evidence that says this is causing this, this is a material reason they do it, the cynic in me says, “You’re just trying to make money.”

CT: The fact that it’s continuing speaks very loud. But what we found is the journalists that we speak to, they’re on board, I’d say 90 percent of them at this point. It’s farther up in the chain where it starts to deteriorate.

TCR: You mean management?

CT: Yes.

TT: Your publishers, your editors, the people who are responsible for the dollars and cents. It will change. And the reason I know it will change is when we go to the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists), and we usually have a panel at the SPJ, attendance at that panel gets larger and larger. It takes an hour at this point for me to leave that panel for all the young people coming up to me saying “You are so right. We couldn’t agree with you more. We want to change the industry.” So it’s gonna change.

CT: It will. I believe it.

TT: I think the other way to change it, if the media doesn’t do it on their own, is that we will have to figure out a way to pressure the advertisers to force the media to do it.

TCR: What about your well- being? The best way to promote your campaign is to monitor mass shootings closely and talk about your experience over and over. Aren’t you just keeping your own pain fresh?

CT: Yes. It’s like Groundhog Day. But it’s not about us. We’re trying to spare other people this pain. There are multiple ways to reduce this greatly, this being only just one of them. And when it keeps happening and happening and happening, every time it happens again I know what lies ahead for the survivors. I think to myself, “Wasn’t Alex enough? Wasn’t he just enough?” And it’s heartbreaking. And you know those 20 (Sandy Hook) parents, those 20 first-graders, they’re thinking “Wasn’t my kid enough to make change?” If the media had changed immediately following Columbine, I do believe my son would still be alive. I truly do.


TT: The sad thing about this is, if you do the right thing, it’s heroic in the truest sense, because no one will ever know whose life you saved. Because that kid won’t come out of the cellar with his AR-15 and shoot up a supermarket or a church because there will be no call to action. You won’t even know you saved somebody’s life. And you know something? To me, that’s the true hero. It’s the person who does the right thing for no reason other than it’s the right thing.

Mark Obbie, a former executive editor of The American Lawyer, writes on criminal justice issues for a variety of online and print publications, including The New York Times, The Trace, and TakePart. He can also be reached through his Twitter account. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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