Mother of victim: Media has to rethink how it covers mass shootings

Editor's note: Kathleen Larimer is the mother of John Larimer, one of 12 people killed in a July 20, 2012, shooting inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. She is a retired nurse who lives in Crystal Lake with her husband, Scott. Today, she writes about No Notoriety, a group started by the parents of another victim of the same shooting. It urges all media to limit publicity given to mass killers on the theory that the notoriety may encourage copycat killings.

At a work-related training session four years ago, the instructor suggested Googling one's own name periodically to see what popped up.

I did it, and what I saw was a picture of the man charged with the murder of my son John and 11 others in the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

It was a picture of him with orange hair that many of the media members really seemed to like showing. Following the 2012 shooting, I quit listening to the radio in the car to and from work. I carefully screened TV so as not to be surprised by a story about the shooter and gingerly turned pages in newspapers and magazines for the same reason. It is now five years since John's murder and two years since the trial. I still Google my name and rarely does the killer's picture pop up. I no longer have to be as careful with TV, radio or print media. This reflects my personal reasons for wishing that all forms of media would adhere to the guidelines of the No Notoriety campaign.

Tom and Caren Teves started the campaign after their son, Alex, was killed in the theater with John and 10 others. Their stated reason is, “Notoriety serves as not only a reward for these murderers, but also as a 'call to action' for other like-minded individuals who seek to gain a similar amount of publicity, motivating them to create and carry out copycat acts.” They have said that media coverage of previous mass murders may have contributed to the mass shooting that killed our sons. Do you remember the rock star treatment that the younger Boston bomber received on the cover of a national magazine? That is the type of coverage to avoid.

The challenge to the media taken from the website follows:

Limit the name and likeness of the individual in reporting after initial identification, except when the alleged assailant is still at large and doing so would aid in the assailant's capture.

Refuse to broadcast/publish self-serving statements, photos, videos and/or manifestos made by the individual. Elevate the names and likenesses of all victims killed and/or injured to send the message their lives are more important than the killer's actions.

Recognize that the prospect of infamy could serve as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill others and could inspire copycat crimes. Keep this responsibility in mind when reporting.

Agree to promote data and analysis from experts in mental health, public safety, and other relevant professions to support further steps to help eliminate the motivation behind mass murder.

Recognize that the individual's name and likeness is irrelevant to media coverage of such acts unless the alleged assailant is at large.

These guidelines do not seem to be too hard to follow. The media already practice restraint in publicizing suicides, names of sexual assault victims or minors. There are studies that have verified the “suicide contagion effect.” After the publicity following a high profile death from suicide, there is an increase of suicides. It was reported that in the months following the probable suicide of Marilyn Monroe, there was a 12 percent increase in suicides from the year before. If you can prove suicide contagion, is it so hard to believe in violence contagion?

There are studies that point to media coverage as being a possible reason for the increase in mass shootings. Sherry Towers, a researcher at Arizona State University, and her colleagues found that mass shootings were more likely to occur shortly after another highly publicized shooting. The study concluded that media coverage might have given at-risk people the idea of committing this type of crime, and that this contagion effect was similar to suicide contagion. Since many mass shooters kill themselves, it is an easy comparison to make.

Mourners carry flowers to a memorial across the street from the Aurora, Colorado, theater where 12 people died in a mass shooting. Associated Press

Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who has studied the link between media coverage and mass shootings since the early 1990s, says that well-adjusted people will not see the media coverage and perpetrate violence. But there will be at-risk people watching that coverage, too.

“The more we provoke that segment of the audience in ways that predictably move them to action, the more we continue this lineage of mass murder,” Dietz said in Al Jazeera America interview in October 2015.

The FBI started a campaign, “Don't Name Them,” based on the belief media coverage can lead to more mass shootings. The campaign advocates:

Encourage law enforcement and other agencies/organizations to sign on.

Recognize the media outlets that step up to this effort. Encourage their decisions to not sensationalize a tragedy.

Create a general media announcement to get the word out.

Have individuals sign petitions encouraging media outlets to move their focus from the shooters to the victims and the heroes.

Develop a message that anyone can send to the media in the wake of a shooting.

Develop letters to the editor and other materials that can be sent to media outlets by individuals.

There is evidence that mass killers study other mass killers and crave notoriety. We have learned this from looking at computer search histories, written manifestos, notebooks, and social media or from the killers themselves. There was a line in a TV crime drama in which a murderer said that, “It is better to die in infamy than to live a life of obscurity.” While that quote is taken from a work of fiction, it sums up very nicely the thought process of some of these killers.

Media have changed considerably in the last few decades. We now have 24/7 news channels that cover these shootings in great depth and detail. The internet makes it very easy to share around the world. The media and law enforcement need to adapt to the changes in the world and change how they cover mass shootings or other forms of violence.

  Kathleen Larimer of Crystal Lake lost her son John in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting. Bev Horne/

I am not saying that changing media coverage alone is going to solve the problem of mass murders; there are many avenues to explore and much more research that needs to be done. What I am saying is that since there are studies that show a link between media coverage and the increase of mass murders, we should push for changing how these shootings are covered in the media and by law enforcement.

It can be done. I moved to Colorado for the trial of my son's murderer. I read the local newspapers and watched the Denver TV stations. Generally, they adhered to the No Notoriety guidelines. They covered the trial without using pictures of the shooter or his name. Pictures especially are impactful. They used pictures of the courthouse, courtroom or the movie theater with crime scene tape. They were able to tell their news stories about the trial without giving the defendant any more fame.

I do not avoid naming my son's murderer because I am afraid of him. He will never leave prison. I am afraid that by bringing fame to him, or others like him, another person might take that as a reason to go on his or her own killing spree. My son is dead and nothing will change that. I just want to try to prevent others from having to live with this grief and loss.

John Larimer died saving the lives of two others

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