Dear Dan: Should Florida State Student Newspaper Identify Campus Gunman By Name?
Dear Dan is a CMM series featuring perspectives and advice on serious and quirky college media issues of the moment. Most installments include a question or quandary submitted by a student journalist, professional journalist, journalism professor or student press adviser.
Dear Dan: Is the Florida State campus newspaper right to not name the gunman who injured some students and caused mass panic and a campus lockdown yesterday?
Myron May, a 31-year-old lawyer and Florida State University alumnus with “a paranoid streak,” opened fire yesterday morning in the FSU library. May injured three people and “sent hundreds of students who’d been studying for final exams running for their lives and cowering behind bookshelves” before being killed by university police.
I am identifying him by name. By comparison, in its coverage of the shooting so far, The FSView & Florida Flambeau, FSU’s student newspaper, has not named May. While reporting on various personal details — including his gender, profession and FSU connection — top editors at the paper have unanimously “made the decision not to publish the name of the gunman.”
Is declining to publish this type of personal detail the right call? I personally do not favor it. But the arguments on both sides of the debate are at least compelling enough to lay out.
This man hurt innocent people, caused massive unrest for hours and has now shattered the feeling of security shared by tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff who live, study and work at FSU. I believe his direct and indirect victims and the larger university community have a right to read his name and see his face — ensuring a more human connection to the pain, anger and confusion they are experiencing.
He is also now a national figure. His means of achieving that level of notoriety (most likely short-lived) may disgust us, but we cannot deny his newsworthy status. The press has a history, and a duty, to fully report on newsworthy issues, trends, events and individuals. And reporting on individuals starts with gathering and sharing basic details like age, occupation — and a name.
For this reason, all other press outlets I’ve read and scrolled through worldwide have named May. His identity is also being tossed around in endless tweets and Facebook status updates.
Bottom line, it is almost impossible for us to avoid the name, making the FSU paper’s decision akin to raking leaves during a windstorm.
Which is of course the point of the paper’s decision. While the EIC has declined comment so far about the name refusal [update: a statement from EIC], it is surely a symbolic act of protest more than an actual attempt to stamp out information. The paper is fighting against a sadly prevalent trend in news media crisis coverage: the tendency to overreport, sensationalize and make stars of the perpetrators while forgetting or dehumanizing the victims (including by referring to them solely as numbers — as in the amount killed or injured).
So by declining to run his name, the FSU student paper is not only protesting an oft-criticized media action but also showing its support for the FSU faithful. It is ensuring its audience knows the paper values the victims more than glorifying the shooter. To that end, is the decision possibly a sign of just how in touch the paper is with its readership?
On the other hand, it does threaten to overwhelm the rest of its coverage — and could be viewed as craven attention-seeking more than responsible journalism. Reporting a shooter’s name is so standard that I imagine a large majority of readers would not have thought twice if the paper simply ran it. By refusing to do so, pointing it out in an editor’s note and thus inviting media attention to it, the paper runs the risk of becoming the center of a sider-sideshow story when the sole focus right now should be on the state of FSU in the shooting’s wake.
Separately, one interesting side-question: If May had been identified by police but was still on the loose, would the paper be running his name? After all, from a public safety angle, releasing as much information as possible might trigger a reader to come forward with valuable information.
Instead, of course, he’s dead, prompting one tweeter to wonder, “Why does the news release the name of the shooter if the shooter died in the incident? If the shooter’s dead, he/she is no longer a threat.”
My answer to that: Because the shooting is big news. In journalism, we tell stories that go beyond what everyone sees or experiences, getting at how or why something happened and who or what was the cause. In this case, May was the cause. He’s not just a gender, an age, a profession, a mental problem. He’s a person, a newsworthy person — and he has a name.
What do you think?
Here are some related tweets on both sides of the debate.
I get what they're trying to accomplish.Ultimately tho it's just bad journalism not name suspect. Press' job to give public answers. @FSView
— maybenextseason (@FF_Burger) November 21, 2014
Also, proud of @FSView for choosing not to publish the shooter's name. Let's focus on what's really important: the healing of the victims.
— Kim Hoy (@kimahoy) November 21, 2014
— Zachary Goldstein (@creativenole) November 21, 2014
— Luke Kerr-Dineen (@LukeKerrDineen) November 20, 2014
Why does the news release the name of the shooter if the shooter died in the incident? If the shooters dead, he/she is no longer a threat.
— Seth (@Yoster_Strudel) November 21, 2014
— Moriah McLaughlin (@MoriahMcLaugh) November 21, 2014
@romenesko Yeah, it's not like the name of a shooter is newsworthy or anything. Sheesh….
— David Kahane (@dkahanerules) November 20, 2014