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Published: Sunday, 12/29/2013


No anonymity

Here is a bad idea whose time may have come, with the best of intentions.

Some Americans want the names of perpetrators of heinous crimes, such as shootings in schools, not to be mentioned by news media. The idea is that naming killers is hurtful to victims’ families and may encourage copycat crimes by other sick people who seek notoriety.

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. He critically wounded a 17-year-old classmate, who later died, before he killed himself.

In that suffering community, it is understandable that the killer’s name was passed over in settings such as memorial services or statements by public officials. But news organizations can’t be expected to do likewise.

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

Without that information, rumors and speculation are bound to fly. Without identifying the killer, it’s hard to make sense of the tragedy. 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.

The assurance of future media anonymity 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 a way only to feel good, not to do good.

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