When does evil have a name? When should it?
News outlets have grappled with that question for years, especially as mass shootings have become more frequent. In recent years, many newsrooms have decided – in the interest of not giving murderers the attention that some of them crave – to forgo naming mass shooters in news coverage. Unfortunately, this decision could inadvertently exacerbate negative racial stereotypes. By not naming mass shooters, is the media making us more racist?
According to a 2021 study, among those mass killings in which the offender’s race was reported, 41.8% of shooters were white, 37.6% were Black, and 12.3% were Hispanic. (The study classified mass shootings as those in which four or more people were killed, not including the assailant.) In those shootings classified as “public” – as opposed to, say, people who killed their families or “felony-related” killings, such as during home invasions – the percentage of white shooters jumps to 54.4%, while the share of Black shooters falls to 26.6%.
But for non-mass shootings, the numbers shift. A separate 2017 Department of Justice report found that among crimes involving a firearm, a plurality of the perpetrators were Black. Taken together, these studies suggest a preponderance of mass shootings are carried out by white shooters, while Black shooters are responsible for more individual homicides.
Starting in 2012 following the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, news organizations began opting to not name the killers in their stories. The No Notoriety movement, founded by two parents who lost their son in the Aurora shooting, cited research that indicated many mass murderers are driven by the fame that such an act engenders. By not naming shooters, they suggest, news media could help prevent the next shooting.
No comparable movement exists regarding individual shooters. Many media outlets, especially smaller publications, don’t hesitate to publish their names and use mugshots as clickbait – even if they have yet to be convicted of a crime. A 2016 survey of 74 different publications found that 40% of them did so. Although some larger papers, such as the Houston Chronicle, have abandoned the practice, it persists in many places where the hometown newspaper might be the sole source of local coverage.
Choosing not to name mass shooters becomes a language issue, in part because of the complicated and violent history of how generations of Black Americans were named. Many enslaved people were given their owner’s name, and some of those names endure. Yet research has shown that from before the Civil War and continuing past the civil rights movement, naming patterns have been racially distinctive for generations.
This continues today: New York City publishes data on baby names by race, and for the most recent data available, only Olivia and Noah appeared on the “Top 10” lists of both Black and white newborns. This means that even if a news story or its photo doesn’t indicate a person’s race, readers intuit a shooter’s race based on their name.
The effect is clear. By learning the names of individual shooters and not mass shooters, readers may associate gun violence with Black people over white people at rates disproportionate to who is actually committing crimes.
As long as misperceptions about gun violence persist, solutions will remain elusive, killings will continue, and the prejudices that motivate so many of these crimes will only harden. Even if we don’t name the evil, we can begin to help ourselves by naming one of the inadvertent effects of our attempts to address it.
Jeffrey Barg is “The Angry Grammarian,” and writes about how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world. www.theangrygrammarian.com