City Lights: Thoughts on gunmen, victims and the media that reports them

August 07, 2012|By Michael Miller

It's rare that I remember a magazine cover a decade and a half later, but one that has stuck in my mind — and not in a good way — is the issue of Time from the week after the Columbine High School massacre.

Anyone from the class of 1998, the last before Columbine, can probably remember the moment they first heard about the shooting that claimed 15 lives and left dozens more wounded. It's the kind of story that becomes automatic front-page news, and a magazine cover, in particular, calls for a searing image: shots of weeping survivors, a gun-themed graphic, candles outside of the school.

Instead, Time's editors opted for a pair of color close-ups of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, grinning into the camera above the headline "The Monsters Next Door." The victims appeared in black-and-white around the cover's perimeter.

Shortly afterward, the magazine printed a curt retort on its letters page: "I'm horrified to see the two killers on your cover. Shame on you for glorifying such people!"


Flash forward 13 years, and the nation is reeling from yet another mass shooting — this one at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin with seven dead, including the suspected gunman. Just days ago, it seems, the Colorado theater massacre slipped off the front page, and now here we are again.

At the time of this writing, the Wisconsin suspect has been identified as ... should I even give his name? The Los Angeles Times has posted it, as have Fox News, USA Today and just about every other publication.

No doubt you know the Colorado suspect's name as well. Does every mention "glorify" them further? Or, once the cat is out of the bag, is there any sense in playing ignorant?

Journalism has a number of moral gray areas, and covering mass slayings ranks high on the list. Our job, first and foremost, is to provide information, and we pride ourselves on not suppressing news. If an incident like the theater or temple tragedies occurred and the media refused to release the identity of the shooter, would the public protest?

No doubt, yes. An essential part of freedom is our right to know.

At the same time, there has been a rising tide in recent weeks calling for the opposite in the media's treatment of killers. In the wake of the Colorado shooting, the brother of one of the victims started a campaign to suppress the suspect's name, and President Obama even refrained from using it in a speech after meeting with him, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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