Over the past two weeks, in the wake of one of the worst school shootings in recent history, journalists covering the story have been issued an unfair challenge: give an effective account of the tragedy, but don’t talk about about the shooter.
On the morning of Oct. 1, 26-year-old Christopher Harper-Mercer opened fire at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killing nine members of the UCC community before pulling the trigger on himself. The day after the tragedy, the small Oregon town’s local newspaper, The Roseburg News-Review, weathered furious backlash after it ran an article containing Harper-Mercer’s name alongside a biographical sketch of him, drawing ire for allegedly glorifying the actions of the gunman by covering him instead of exclusively the victims.
As the story spread beyond Roseburg, journalists nationwide became scapegoats for publishing details of the tragedy alongside the shooter’s name and background. Within days, the hashtag #dontsayhisname began to surface on Twitter in response to the media, for reporting on Harper-Mercer’s background instead of staying silent out of supposed respect for the victims.
However, while well-intended, tiptoeing around sensitive subjects isn’t respectful, it’s a blatant refusal to learn from tragedy. Ignoring Harper-Mercer completely isn’t a show of respect for the victims, it is a failure to recognize and understand the societal issues that breed people like him. Turning the national debate into whether or not to say his name and tell his story is little more than a distraction from the deep-rooted causes of mass shootings like these — poor gun regulation and mental health screening laws.
Too many preventable tragedies have happened already as a result of ignoring patterns in the backgrounds of mass shooters and failing to address them. By learning who Harper-Mercer was and looking at the severe mental illness in his background, by connecting this to the backgrounds of other mass shooters — the monsters behind shootings at Sandy Hook, Isla Vista, and Aurora, along with the two college shootings at NAU and TSU that happened on the same day, just last Friday — we can piece together continuities between these people. We can learn how to prevent these incidents in the future, through gun regulation, background checks, mental health screenings, and better mental health resources. But until we stop blaming journalists for talking openly about the perpetrators of these shootings, we can never prevent people like them from committing such heinous crimes in the future.
So, if journalists are going to talk about Harper-Mercer, let’s not glorify him, let’s learn from him. Let’s talk about how, like Harper-Mercer, approximately 60% of mass shooters have displayed symptoms of acute mental illness, according to the National Institute of Health. Let’s talk about the 3,700 psychologically ineligible people allowed to purchase guns each year after just a short waiting period as a result of lax federal restrictions. Let’s talk about the senators who raked in 11 times more campaign contributions from pro-gun groups for voting against comprehensive background checks than their colleagues who voted in favor of the amendment (S.Amdt.715).
Let’s talk about Harper-Mercer — not to sensationalize him, but to learn what we need to do differently as a society to prevent people like him from committing acts like this in the future. If we can’t even say his name and talk about the societal plagues he represents, we can never address them, and nothing will ever change.
Turning a blind eye to the troubled backgrounds, personalities and mental illnesses that afflict mass murderers isn’t a show of respect. Ignoring deep-rooted problems won’t make them go away, and failing to recognize patterns in the backgrounds of mass shooters is a surefire way to let these tragedies continue to happen. Severe mental illness and the failure to provide comprehensive background checks for gun registration leads to these tragedies. By talking about the shooter, the media is doing what the media has always done — telling stories, be they tragic or controversial. No matter what, the story will be told. It’s up to us whether we ignore those narratives or learn from them.
Megan Cole is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.