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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT