Skip to main content

Why the media cannot ignore the killer

By Mike Hoyt, Special to CNN
July 26, 2012 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
On Anderson Cooper's show, a father of a victim of the Aurora shooting said he thought the media should not mention the name of the Colorado shooter
On Anderson Cooper's show, a father of a victim of the Aurora shooting said he thought the media should not mention the name of the Colorado shooter
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Anderson Cooper's show, a father of a victim of the Aurora shooting asks about media's role
  • Mike Hoyt: Is Tom Teves right to say news organizations should ignore the mass killers
  • He says it's natural to ask why the horrific incident happened and what motivated the gunman
  • Hoyt: Media should make the necessary inquiries but never glorify the killer

Editor's note: Mike Hoyt is executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

(CNN) -- We learned a few things on Monday night, those of us watching Anderson Cooper on "AC360," about Alex Teves, one of the people who died in the gunfire at theater 9 in the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado. We learned that in high school, "for no reason whatever," as his father put it, Alex always wore white T-shirts and blue jeans, and that one day some 400 to 500 kids from the school wore the same outfit, declaring an unofficial "Alex Teves Day."

We got to meet Alex's best friend, Ryan Cooper, who spoke about how people were "drawn to him." And his girlfriend, Amanda Lindgren, who told us, among other things, about the last act of Alex's life, which in some ways is all you need to know: He dove across her body to protect her from the bullets.

Opinion: Three Aurora heroes gave their lives

Perhaps most painfully, we met Tom Teves, the father of Alex, a likeable, visibly hurt man. He said, when Cooper asked how he was holding up: "It's the worst day of my life every day. Alex was my firstborn son. I love him with all my heart."

Mike Hoyt
Mike Hoyt

Teves had something to say to the news media, too, something impossible to ignore: "And if we don't stop talking about the gunman -- so somebody took a gun and went in and shot a 6-year-old girl? Why are we talking about that person?"

He went on: "I would like to see CNN come out with a policy that said, 'Moving forward, we're not going to talk about the gunman. What we're going to say is: A coward walked into a movie theater and started shooting people. He's apprehended. The coward's in jail. He will never see the light of day again. Let's move on'... CNN, Fox News, the major networks. Why don't you guys all come out with a policy that says, we're not going to show this [killer] again? That would be my -- that would be my challenge to you and to every network."

As compelling and tempting as his plea is, I would argue that Teves is only half right.

Victim's dad: Stop talking about gunman
Meet the man behind the Aurora crosses
LeVar Burton on talking about tragedy

The mass killings certainly dominated the news, quickly becoming one of the biggest stories of 2012.

Nearly three quarters of the nation has been following it "very" or "fairly" closely, according to Pew Research Center. Still, if mass shootings weren't big news, you would worry. James Holmes' face, meanwhile, made it to a number of front pages in the wake of the massacre, as shown in Newseum's Today's Front Page feature, but not as often or as large as you might think. And you did want to know what he looked like, didn't you? Even Tom Teves went to court to see his face.

Looking into the minds of killers

Like Teves, many people suspect that some sort of media glory is part of the payoff for these mass killers. And that seems plausible. But the truth of the matter is we don't have a clue. Nor do we have an idea if some sort of media blackout about them would have any effect in preventing this type of incident from occurring again.

Court appearance fuels theories about Colorado shooting suspect

As an analogy, one he freely admitted is on a wholly different level, Teves used the example of people running on fields during professional ball games.

The media stopped showing such incidents, he pointed out, and now that the TV cameras no longer show these runners, he asked, "When was the last time you saw somebody jump on the field?"

The problem, unfortunately, is that people still jump on ball fields. I just search for "people running on baseball fields" on Google and up popped recent incidents in 10 cities, all recorded on cell phones, as well as two websites that collects such videos.

Stories of survival amidst the shooting

What really causes mass murderers to commit their crimes? Mental illness? Environmental factors? Something worse?

News media speculation about the motive isn't helpful to anyone. Yet people around the country are concerned; some are even traumatized by this event. It is natural to wonder why and how the horrific shooting happened. And to the extent that it can address such big questions, news organizations should make the necessary inquiries -- dig into the suspect's past, find indicators of questionable behavior, look for signs of terrifying intent. This is the media's responsibility.

Warning signs of violence: What to do

News outlets should never glorify killers in any way. In the chance that being on television and across the front pages could be a draw to killers, the news media must err on the side of caution in its coverage. The prime focus should be properly on the victims. And, I would add, on the victims' friends and families, who tell us so movingly that they will remember. As Teves said, "You know, Alex would have expected us to live. We're going to live." To report that kind of love and guts is essential.

Still, when something like this happens, we are, as a society, like a tribe discussing the events around the campfire. Reporters are something like the tribal scouts. There are wolves, and we have questions: How many wolves? How do they act? Which way should we go?

How to help the victims

Here, too, we have questions: Who is this killer? What concrete facts give clues to how he got that way? Is there any law or cultural change that might deter the next one? Were signals missed? All of this matters. Tell us about the wolves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Hoyt.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT