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No names or photos won't stop mass shooters, but we shouldn't humanize them with details:

James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Dec. 21, 2018

Names and faces are not the problem, but the excessive and often irrelevant details about the killers and their writings unnecessarily humanizes them.

The fall semester has ended, and final papers are in. That includes the final report prepared by the Federal Commission on School Safety, an assignment from Donald Trump in response to last February's mass shooting in Parkland, FL. And just as students often fashion their term papers to conform to their teachers' views, the Betsy DeVos-led team certainly gave Trump recommendations that would be to his liking.
It is of little surprise that the commission dismissed any thoughts about gun control and promoted more armed school personnel, taking a position straight down the party line the GOP (Gun Owners' Party), that is. The commission even took a Trump-style attempt at media bashing in suggesting that publishing a killer's identify and image encourages copycats.

The "no names or photos" theme is hardly original, as CNN's Anderson Cooper and several leading criminologists have urged journalists to take a "no notoriety" pledge. And the concern isn't just about school shooters, but perpetrators of other high-profile crimes as well, including public rampages, serial murder, mob hits and terrorist bombings.
I appreciate the concern for name and visual identification of murderers for fear of inspiring copycats as well as to avoid insult to the memory of those they slaughtered. However, names and faces are not the problem, but the excessive and often irrelevant details  too much information about the killers, their writings and their backgrounds that unnecessarily humanizes them. We sometimes come to know more about them  their interests and their disappointments than we do about our next-door neighbors. Too often the line is crossed between news reporting and celebrity watch.
In the case of Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock, a man whose name and face are widely recognized, we learned about his past relationships and marriages, his job history, his enjoyment of karaoke, his favorite casino games, an even what he ordered from room service prior to the shooting. His relatives and acquaintances have been interviewed by the press. The New York Times methodically traced through visuals his every step in the days leading up to the massacre. And still we don't have a handle on Paddock's motivation and inspiration.

We know more about shooters than neighbors.
Some suggest that compiling a biographical profile of a killer will help us to identify future assailants a clear case of wishful thinking. The level of published details about the Las Vegas gunman went so far as to include a high school yearbook photo depicting him standing among tennis teammates. Is his having played tennis in any way relevant? Is a passion for tennis now to be considered a potential red flag for mass murder?
The DeVos commission argues that the opportunity for instant fame and becoming a household name attracts the narcissistic and dangerous. That pales, however, in comparison to the common practice of featuring the disturbing ideas and distorted theories expounded by killers in letters, social media and videos. Killers who feel bullied by peers or victimized by society often seek to air their grievances in the public arena. Rampage killer Elliot Rodger left behind YouTube videos, and Seung-Hui Cho paused during his Virginia Tech rampage to send explanatory videotapes to NBC. Fame was not the objective, but their desire for us to understand that they were not just some nut who killed for no good reason.
Rants from shooters should not be published
Treating their rants as something worth publicizing is then exacerbated by the tendency to call such diatribes a manifesto, a term more appropriately used to describe the views of someone prominent. The one thing that Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, got right is in insisting that his writings should not be characterized in this way.

Back in 1992, serial killer Leslie Allen Williams exploited the Detroit-area media to the hilt by having news stations complete for an exclusive interview. He also chose one of the city's daily papers for the "privilege" of printing his 24-page open letter to the public that expounded on his theories and philosophy of life. Apparently, the tone of crime news journalism hasn't come very far in the past quarter-century. And withholding the names and mug-shots of killers will not do much to improve matters.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.
He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.  Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.

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