“He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”
These were the words of New Zealand’s PM, Jacinda Ardern, in a powerful address to Parliament in the wake of the Christchurch attack. The reason behind her decision to keep the perpetrator unnamed seems largely to avoid giving him the notoriety that many mass shooters and terrorists crave and, in most cases, manage to achieve.
For example, the names “Dylan” and “Eric” need merely be mentioned in the same beat for many to know exactly who is being referred to. We know how they dressed, what the contents of their diaries contained, and can hum the tune of the song they inspired. The naming of these killers led to an intense media focus which included irrelevant details about the killers’ lives, such as their writings, their backgrounds, and in general involved an unnecessary humanisation of the killers, creating a wrong image of the killers as “misunderstood anti-heroes”.
This media frenzy not only allowed for a perverse cult following of the boys to emerge, but also inspired the hit song “Pumped Up Kicks” (I would like to note here that, shockingly, this is not in fact the first mass shooting to inspire a song that has reached popular charting success; “I Don’t Like Mondays” by The Boomtown Rats holds that title). Yet, despite the hours of news coverage and countless documentaries I, sadly, cannot name any of their victims. The case of Columbine shows exactly the type of media coverage and sick consequences that arise when killers are named. This is exactly what Ardern is trying to avoid.
In contrast, in the weeks following Christchurch, the nightly news has been flooded with accounts of the victims. The type of people they were, the lives they lead, the people and communities by whom they will be so greatly missed, and the perpetrator of these atrocities is only mentioned when necessary. This shift in media attention to where it rightfully belongs – that is memorialising those who have lost their lives rather than he who took them – is largely down to Ardern and the media’s decision to uphold her stance.
Not only does this shift in focus away from biographing the killer allow us to rightfully focus on the victims, but it also allows coverage to expand to the larger issues that fuel these crimes. It allows society to see the woods rather than merely the trees; for example, prompting a debate over access to guns as a whole, rather than just the perpetrator’s access to guns. This expansion of debate has, in fact, occurred in New Zealand, and resulted in the banning of assault rifles.
This is not just the fault of journalists: they simply cover stories that mass audiences want to read. And if sensational headlines and deep dives into the killers’ lives is what grabs an audience’s attention, then we really need to reflect upon ourselves. Maybe there is something sick and twisted within us all if we allow the media to shift focus onto the killers in order to feed our grotesque yet undeniable fascination. After all, we provide the questions; the journalists merely try to provide the answers. However, it is undeniable that the press do have power and control over the narrative, and in the case of Christchurch, we must applaud their decision to agree with Ardern and keep the perpetrator nameless.
This media stance was not the case with Norwegian mass murderer and terrorist, Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people at a summer camp after writing a manifesto which was, until recently, available for purchase in hardback from a number of online booksellers including Amazon. Alarmingly, the Christchurch shooter also wrote a manifesto, stating Breivik as an inspiration. In biographical media coverage of terrorists such as Breivik, an inadvertent promotion of fringe materials and the spreading of the perpetrator’s message occurs, and thus the terrorist’s ultimate end of notoriety is achieved often inspiring copycats, as was the case in Christchurch.
In saying that these killers and terrorists should remain nameless, what I am not suggesting is that we should omit to examine how perpetrators were radicalised and what clues lay in their previous behaviour. These are important details in preventing future acts of mass violence. But what I am saying is that media coverage should emphasise the how and the why of the attacks rather than the who. And, while I acknowledge that keeping the perpetrators nameless won’t completely stop heinous acts of violence, Ardern has it right: we should deny killers the notoriety they seek. Keep them nameless, so that their victims are not.