Should Media Broadcast the Names of Murderers?
NEAL CONAN, host:
In a letter read only after his killing spree in Oklahoma, Nebraska earlier this year, Robert Hawkins wrote: Now, I'll be famous.
It's hard to say just how big a part the hope for notoriety played in his decision or those decisions of other murderers. But in some cases, it's hard to argue that they played no part at all. So what if the news media decided not to publish or broadcast the names of these killers? Why does it seem sometimes the killer gets more and more positive coverage than the victims? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
There were a slew of op-eds on this point after the Omaha incident. Gil Gross wrote one for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, after he declined to name the killer when he substituted that day for Paul Harvey. He's also the host of the Gil Gross Program on KGO-AM in San Francisco. And he joins us today from his home in Los Angeles.
Nice to have to you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. GIL GROSS (Journalist; Host, "The Gil Gross Show"): It's good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And I should point out that you acknowledge in your op-ed that the killer's identity is a matter of public record, so whether you report it or not it's going to get out. The point you raise is, should it?
Mr. GROSS: Absolutely. I mean, there were things that hit me that day. One of which was his request for fame and the other of which was a story that didn't burst to the national media for another two weeks that I found in the Detroit news that day about a little girl named Alexis Goggins. This was a girl, 7 years old - her mother was being attacked by an ex-boyfriend just out of prison. And Alexis jumped between the ex-boyfriend and her mom and took six bullets meant for her mother. She has survived, though she has lost vision in one eye.
And I was sitting there with these two stories: this girl who had this and this guy who had shot and killed innocent people because he wanted to be famous, and then this little girl whose name would probably be forgotten after a one-day news cycle, and it just finally got to me. So I led with Alexis story, mentioned her name several times, did the Omaha mall shooting, mentioned that the guy wanted to be famous, and gave Alexis name again instead of using his at all.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. It's a conundrum you run into. Of course, on any number of levels, you have to report the name of the killer.
Mr. GROSS: And yes, you do. And I have mentioned in the op-ed piece and I mentioned on the air that day that they're actually good reasons for doing that. You look at a case like the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C. area, where reporting their names helped us connect them to crimes that were committed back in the south and originally back to the Pacific Northwest where the whole thing started. So, yes. So it becomes a matter of focus. It becomes -do we make the focus the killer which is sort of easy because it's one point of reference instead of many for the victims, or do we make it the victims.
And some of the things I object to is that besides so often making it the single focus being the killer and putting his name up that we, in trying to answer the unanswerable, go on and on about the killer. We talk to psychologists who have never ever talked to this person and seen no records on them, who just speculate endlessly about their background, what might have set them off. We go on and on about the killer. There's very little distaste for him. We try to find understanding. I understand that, except after 40 years of interviewing some of these people, you're not going to find it. So it becomes a matter of focus, and I think that's where we've kind of gone off the rail.
CONAN: Well, let's introduce a new voice into the conversation and new voice to this program. Lisa Shepard is with us here in Studio 3A. She's NPR's new ombudsman. And she will be with us from time-to-time on this program to talk about NPR's issues. But also, we have broader issues in journalism which is why we invited you in on this one, Lisa. And of course, again, the name of the killer - it's important news.
LISA SHEPARD: Well, the obligation of a journalist is to inform society. And so I think, well, really what we're talking about is a matter of proportion. Clearly, the killer's name has to be in the news. It is a matter of public record. It's a fact. It's our duty to inform. But I do agree that, often, we glorify or give a certain celebrity status to the killer, and that there should definitely be some thought in every news department about focusing more on the victims. Who are the victims?
I think we all know the names of the two men who killed - I should say boys -who killed 13 people at Columbine. And we know who tried to assassinate Reagan. And we know the name of the killer better than we know the name of the victims at Virginia Tech. And I don't think anyone would agree that that is right. But what is the story? A story is why did this guy do it. And I don't think that's story can be overlooked either.
Mr. GROSS: It can't be overlooked but, again, I think we fill up far too much speculation when we just frankly don't know. I don't want to hear from any more psychologists who have never talked to these people. It's - you know, and we fall on the cliches about broken homes, when we sit at our own jobs next to people from broken homes who have fine lives. I remember, which was kind of a media bias thing, when any time, anybody who had served in Vietnam went off and did something bad, the first thing that jumped up in the reference was Vietnam vet, as if, oh, there was something about serving at Vietnam that turned them bad.
These are the sort of things that pop up in this kind of coverage that I think we really have to start thinking twice about.
CONAN: And the case you pointed in your op-ed, Gil Gross, was the Son of Sam, the .44 Caliber Killer. And as you pointed out, many of us will remember his name today. And I was at New York that year, listening to you on the radio, by the way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And I don't remember the name of any of his victims.
Mr. GROSS: New Yorkers will probably remember Stacy Moskowitz because she was one of the last and her mother really came to the forefront in trying to do something about what we originally called the .44 Caliber Killer, then later Son of Sam after the letters of Jimmy Breslin.
But you're right. Most people won't know anything about it until this day. And, you know, we've all had our round of interviewing him. He has no idea why he did it and neither after all these years does anybody else.
CONAN: And that becomes, Lisa, a problem because you are trying to answer that question. Remember after the Virginia Tech shooting…
SHEPARD: Oh, yes.
CONAN: …so it was not just psychologists, teachers, people who taught this young man in one-on-one sessions, people who did know. I mean, and they had no idea.
SHEPARD: They had no idea, and yet there was this thirst to find out more about him and know why he did it. And I think, you know, probably, the parents of those kids want to know why he did it, too.
Again, it's just proportion. It's just that you don't spend all your front page, all your airtime on who this kid is.
SHEPARD: And again, I did have to look up his name. But I'm sure people could have gotten it. And I don't think that they remember any of the names of the victims. I actually covered the story for the New York Times and went down. I went to several of the funerals, so I do remember. And one of the things that the New York Times wanted me to do at that point was to go out and pop myself down on the doorstep of Cho Seung-Hui's house in Centreville. And I just didn't want to do that. I think that kind of reporting is just unnecessary and it's intruding and it's voyeuristic. And…
CONAN: I wanted to ask you. In that regard, the New York Times is widely hailed for after 9/11 and, of course…
CONAN: …terrible number of deaths, the faces of the fall and…
CONAN: …when they did little profiles of every single victim…
CONAN: …that they could identify from 9/11. Do they do that in the case of…
SHEPARD: They did.
CONAN: …Virginia Tech?
SHEPARD: They did have.
CONAN: …and in other situations.
SHEPARD: There were 33 killed and are 32 and including him. But they did do that, obviously, the scope of 9/11 in terms of the devastation was such that I think that journalism was hailed widely, the idea of - and very - and with people being really, really impressed that the New York Times did that and that they concentrated on really trying to get to the humanity of the victims.
One of the things we haven't talked about is we should try as journalist to avoid really getting into writing about who this murderer is and what he ate for breakfast.
Mr. GROSS: Yes.
SHEPARD: And what his hobbies were and, you know, in any way to sort of sympathize with him.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Our guests are Gil Gross of ABC Radio News and Lisa Shepard, NPR's new ombudsman.
And let's begin with Christie(ph), And Christie is with us from Bloy(ph), is that right, Arizona?
CHRISTIE (Caller): Eloy, yes.
CONAN: Eloy. I could - read the E as a B. I knew it couldn't be Bloy. Go ahead.
CHRISTIE: Some very fascinating subject. I just wanted to make a comment that American - I mean, the media plays what Americans want to hear about and Americans spend millions of dollars in the movie theatre on movies where there's a serial killer, murdering people, inflicting intense pain and agony and people just have a fascination, a morbid fascination with this kind of stuff, serial killers. And so the media, of course, is going to give the public what it wants. So I don't necessarily think it's journalists who are at fault for this. It's the American public.
SHEPARD: Well, journalists have to make a decision…
CHRISTIE: I just wanted to hear your comment…
SHEPARD: …on what to cover. And so it's…
Mr. GROSS: Mm-hmm.
SHEPARD: They do have a choice. If we just went by what the public wanted, there would be very - there would have been very little coverage of the civil rights movement.
CONAN: So. But Gil Gross, again, the attention that this story got - clearly, the number of people killed that day in Omaha, Nebraska, well, with a gun, it's certainly news. I'm not trying to argue that. But a lot of people got killed in car accidents that day, too.
Mr. GROSS: Yes. And look, there is a fascination because this is out of the ordinary, and that's what news is. It's not the ordinary day's events and sadly, people getting killed in car accidents, that is part of the ordinary day's passing events. And, again, this is - it's that line - you know, what he said in that letter was, now, I'll be famous, not, now, I'll be mentioned in the third paragraph or not now, well, my name will come up. Now, I'll be famous. And, again, it is that matter of focus that we're talking about.
And also, you know, in terms of what that last caller is saying, we do make these decisions all the time. I - I've only been the news director a couple of times because I like hiring people, but I hate firing people - and that mostly what that job has become over the last couple of decades. But the first guy I ever fired was a guy - and these are the kind of decisions that we make even when something is a matter of public record - was a guy, a small town, early in my career, had been stalking an 8-year-old girl but had never quite followed her home. Other people had always kind of come to her aid before he found out where she lived.
Well, I'm driving home and I hear one of my guys give the girl's name and go of and he gave her address. I figured it must have been an oversight. I doubled back to the studio, asked him why he did it. He defended it, saying it's a matter of public record, and that's the last thing he ever did on the air.
So we always make these decisions about public safety and about responsibility even when things are a matter of public record.
CONAN: We're talking - thanks very much for the call.
CHRISTIE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Gil Gross of ABC Radio News and with Lisa Shepard, NPR's ombudsman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go now to Jim(ph). And Jim is with us from Parker, Colorado.
JIM (Caller): Good afternoon.
JIM: I will say that I'm in complete agreement with Mr. Gross' point of view on this. And I would give the following example. About three weeks ago, we had a guy, a teleperson(ph) at a center for missionaries here in the area. Then he went home and got on a chat bulletin board on the Internet and told everybody that by tomorrow afternoon, everyone would know his name. That's an exact quote.
Mr. GROSS: Hmm.
JIM: And he got himself thoroughly armed and went to a nearby church and killed two people. And during the middle of services when there were about 3,000 people on the chapel. If he had not been stopped by a citizen, an armed citizen, acting as well (unintelligible) security guard, he would have killed a lot more people.
The following day, one of the Denver newspapers published his picture on the front page above the fold and some of his writings from his chat session, including the one everyone will know my name, because that makes absolutely no moral or any other kind of sense to me whatsoever.
JIM: Beyond that, one of the Denver radio stations played it for three more days, and on their morning drive show, two days later, they were talking to, as Mr. Gross indicated, psychologists who were trying to explain this away.
When I called the producer and took him to task for giving this guy his -exactly what he wanted and the thing that drew him to do this, the producer had the gall to justify that by saying that, oh, now, we're trying to explain to people how they can keep their relatives from doing the same thing, which is a totally bunch of hooey. It's all about money and ratings. It was transparent.
CONAN: Thanks very much for that. And I guess the case where writings were published that most famously comes to mind is the case of the Unabomber.
Mr. GROSS: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: And this was - for those who don't remember, a man who in isolated - thanks very much for the call, by the way, Jim - who lived in a cabin by himself and wrote these long, rambling screeds that he sent along with bombs, which ended up killing and maiming several people. It took the federal authorities many years to find him. But partly, as a result of publishing his writings, is how they found him.
SHEPARD: Yeah. Yeah. In the Washington Post, I definitely remember that. I don't…
CONAN: His brother, as it turned out, read these in the newspapers and said, I know that style.
SHEPARD: Right, which is - and I think that it was just mentioned that that is another reason to put out these names because they do sometimes lead to the killers or - and you mentioned the sniper case.
Mr. GROSS: Exactly, although remember, of course, the Unabomber case, we published his letters but we didn't know who he was. So we weren't publishing his name.
Mr. GROSS: And this goes back to the example of, you know, the Son of Sam killer, as we called him, after the Breslin letter where we did published things because we were trying to find him to stop a killing spree. So in that case, it was a matter of egging on his fame, he was already committing the crimes. We were trying to find out who he was and this goes back. And boy, in my memory, in New York, when I was a little kid, to - I'll mention his name because he's long dead, George Metesky, the mad bomber.
CONAN: The mad bomber, yeah.
Mr. GROSS: Sure, who haunted New York for decades.
CONAN: Yeah. And was eventually discovered, too. At least in part, as a result of his writings. So different when it's investigatory and - but after the fact, particularly, if notoriety seemed to have been part of the motive, Gil Gross, you're suggesting everybody think twice, three times, four times before publishing the name.
Mr. GROSS: I would think again. And look, we're going to publish the name but, again, it's a matter of degree and focus. It's a matter of do we make this person kind of the star of the reports, or do we make the victim the stars or the criminal process of the main thing about these things.
You know, these are all difficult things. I was at a hostage situation years ago, where the person wanted an hour on WABC Radio where I was working in New York at that time. And but we did not say, well, of course, you can have your hour on the air. We negotiated for the better part of 36 hours before we made a brief statement. And he released the person who turned out to be somebody who was an accomplice. But that released the person he was supposedly holding.
CONAN: I'm glad that worked out.
SHEPARD: But this is definitely an issue of if you write the - if you publish the letters, if you give them airtime, then you are, in some ways, encouraging other people to do this. And that's usually why police and journalists do not cooperate with hostage takers.
Mr. GROSS: Mm-hmm.
CONAN: Lisa Shepard, our new ombudsman, who will be back on this program from time to time.
SHEPARD: I hope so.
CONAN: Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION. Gil Gross, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. GROSS: Neal, thank you.
CONAN: Gil Gross is an ABC radio journalist and host of "The Gil Gross Program" on KGO-AM in San Francisco. This is NPR News.
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