No anonymity: The press must name the perpetrators of crimes

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Here is a bad idea whose time may have come — ironically, for the best of reasons. Some Americans want the names of perpetrators of heinous crimes, such as shootings in schools, not to be mentioned by the media. The idea is that naming killers is hurtful to victims’ families and may encourage copycat crimes by sick individuals who seek notoriety.

According to published reports, this feeling has arisen in suburban Denver, where on Dec. 13 an 18-year-old student, Karl Pierson, used a pump-action shotgun to open fire in Arapahoe High School, critically wounding a 17-year-old classmate who later died, before killing himself.

In that suffering community, it is entirely understandable that the killer’s name be passed over in settings such as memorial services or even in statements by public officials speaking days after the event. But news organizations can’t be expected to follow suit.

This is not because reporters and editors are callously indifferent to human suffering. It is because of the very nature of their job. Facts are the sturdy moorings of news, and in a story about a school shooting there is none more central than the name of the killer.

Without that information, rumors and speculation are bound to fly. Without identifying the killer, it’s very hard to make sense of the tragedy. There’s no getting around it: An informed citizenry needs information, however unpleasant it may be to some.

Even if it were not offensive to doctrines of free speech — and it is — the case made by some social scientists for leaving out a killer’s name is not convincing. The deluded killers who open fire in schools have many motivations for their heinous acts, and the assurance of future anonymity in the media may or may not discourage them.

To believe otherwise is to buy into a delusion that ought to be discouraged. There is a difference between fame and infamy — and most people understand it. Would-be killers who don’t are surely not reachable anyway.

Whatever else may be done to discourage school shootings, bringing self-censorship to the facts is only a way to feel good, not do good.

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