EDITORIAL: Instant Infamy—Why the Media’s Fixation on the Names of Mass Shooters Only Contributes to the Problem

Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Adam Lanza, Omar Mateen, Stephen Paddock, Nikolas Cruz, Dimitrios Pagourtzis. Twenty years ago, the world knew nothing of these men. Some of them had yet to be born. Over the last two decades, on six separate, fateful days, that all changed.   

On April 22, 1999, two days after a pair of high school seniors shot 13 dead and injured 24 more in Columbine, Colorado, the cover of the New York Daily News promised readers 12 pages of coverage of the “Trench Coat Killers’ Secret Lives,” describing them as “Armed to the Teeth.”  Even before the days of social media, the public eagerly consumed every detail of the suspects’ lives within only a day or two of the shooting. Even today, countless mass shooters have cited Columbine as the inspiration for their crimes.

He receives dozens of items of fan mail every month. They range from love letters to pictures of pets to requests for a pen pal. This might sound like it is describing your average male celebrity. The letters’ destination? The Broward County Jail. The lucky recipient? Nikolas Cruz, the 19 year old Florida teen who killed 17 of his former classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida February 14th.   

In the months after the Parkland shooting, dozens of attempted school shootings have been reported across the nation, with a few unfortunately succeeding. This trend is not a coincidence. As with any infamous crime, school shootings inspire countless instances of  “copycat crime”. In a recent paper entitled, “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, but Report Everything Else: A Pragmatic Proposal for Denying Mass Killers the Attention They Seek and Deterring Future Offenders,” a group of criminologists emphasizes the consequences of the unending, in-depth news coverage which follows every new rampage.

However, one does not have to be an academic with a degree in behavioral studies to see the obvious impact of the media’s focus on these criminals. With a simple check of Google’s search volume statistics, the instantaneous nature of their bloody rise to fame is all too clear.


As you can see, the attention placed on these individuals mirrors that of any social media phenomenon or child star who suddenly captures the nation’s attention. In the years leading up to their crimes, they are virtually anonymous, just like any other person in the world, irrelevant and unknown to the majority of people across the globe. The moment they execute their grisly schemes, they achieve instant and worldwide recognition on par with any A-list celebrity.

In today’s world, so much emphasis is placed on gun control, and whether or not certain types of rifles, ammunition, or cosmetic features should be made illegal as a means of preventing future tragedy. That is all well and good, but the root of this problem ultimately lies with those who are so troubled and disturbed that they contemplate heinous acts of murder and terror. Until we as a society stop providing them with instantaneous fame and global, far ranging media coverage rarely seen after other crimes, we will only continue to embolden and motivate the next generation of mass shooters, with results we sadly know all too well.