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We Remember The Wrong Names After Tragedies. Who's To Blame?

Crosses honor those killed during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Gregory Bull
Crosses honor those killed during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Most of us would have to look up the name of J.D. Tippit. He was the Dallas police officer shot and killed in 1963, when he tried to apprehend the man who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Or Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service agent who took a bullet fired at President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But Norman Mailer, one of America's great authors, wrote a massive biography of the man who shot J.D. Tippit and John F. Kennedy. Every aspect of the life of the man who shot Tim McCarthy has been followed for years. Both men, with blood from history on their hands, are featured as characters in a Stephen Sondheim musical.

The men who committed mass murder in Charleston, S.C., Newtown, Conn., and Orlando, Fla., became household names for weeks. Murderers can become famous. People who save lives can be footnotes.

As much of America woke to the news this week of the killings in Las Vegas, Zeynep Tufekci, the social scientist who writes on communications technology and is often a guest on Weekend Edition, took to Twitter to caution:

"Media: the next potential mass shooter is watching the current media coverage intently. Right now. Your coverage is a factor in this crisis."

She went on to say that mass coverage that replays sounds and screams, scours a shooter's life for telling details, and searches out their old lovers, co-workers, and childhood friends can fire feverish minds who begin to see killing as an avenue to fame in a world where they've felt overlooked.

"As proof," she wrote, "simply look at recent rise of using cars as weapons. Painfully and openly obvious for decades, only took off recently. Contagion."

Journalists, myself included, often react badly to this argument. The public has a right to know, and the press has a duty to report, every aspect of such public and appalling crimes, though maybe not over and over again and in every terrifying detail. Maybe we can minimize the superlatives of destruction that rank shootings — most, worst, biggest. Many news organizations have truly tried in recent years to repeat a killer's name less and to report more on the lives of those he killed.

But the media are now more plural. People can get news these days — or what they think is news — from hackers, amateurs, hoaxers and just a man or woman on the other side of the world with a smartphone and no worries about how to responsibly report a mass shooting. And this monstrous crime is committed in America every few weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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