Earlier this year in Montreal, a twisted little nonentity with a pathological craving for fame videotaped the murder and dismemberment of his lover and posted the results to the Internet.
When he was arrested in a Berlin café after a not-so-wild goose chase that lasted a little over a week, he was Googling through the plethora of articles that had been written about his exploits. The crush of photographers who mobbed the airport upon his return to face trial in Canada was worthy of an Academy Awards gala.
This week the Canadian Press Agency (similar to AP in the US) declared the chain of events set off by this nobody the Story of the Year, an “event” dutifully reported by Canada’s national TV network. This, in turn, set off a blizzard of Tweeting from outraged politicians and journalists that the press also reported on and which now spurs essays such as this one questioning the news value of “stories” that are little more than a gigantic media circle jerk.
A few weeks ago, yet another suicidal loser decided to take out his frustrations by shooting down a large number of defenseless people, mostly children. Again, the media went into overdrive, interviewing six-year-olds for their valuable insight into the massacre and “looking for answers” in the wake of this heart-wrenching tragedy. People all over the world now know not only the shooter’s name, but what he looked like, along with intimate details of his shitty life. TV specials and books featuring his picture on the cover will ensure that he lives in infamy for decades.
You can be sure that dozens, if not hundreds, of equally disturbed individuals have taken notice and are at this very moment figuring out some new horror to inflict on the rest of us. Feeling depressed? Why simply off yourself, the reasoning goes, when by taking others with you, you can leave your ugly little stain on the world?
And there’s the rub. For in all the demonizing of guns, drugs, the mentally ill, and the failed social safety net, the one group that passes relatively unscathed by the media is (gasp!) the media, the same media that keeps a running body count and announces the latest totals with more gusto than a new Olympic record, the media that clambers over itself to provide us with murderers’ yearbook photos and quotes from their neighbours who concede that, now that you mention it, the guy displayed an unusual preference for blue Gatorade.
It’s hard to believe that anyone outside of the deranged-asshole community really cares about any of this stuff. And yet the mere suggestion that some sort of moratorium—voluntary or otherwise—be placed on publishing the names and pictures of mass killers elicits a deafening wave of ululations defending the sanctity of a free press.
Censorship of any kind is a messy business, but let’s not kid ourselves. There are already all sorts of conventions agreed upon by mass media. Words such as fuck, cocksucker, and various racial epithets are bleeped or asterisked out of existence in order to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of any small children who might stumble across them while watching CNN or reading The New York Times. The names of rape victims and juvenile offenders are banned from publication across North America, and until a few years ago, photo editors regularly blacked-out the eyes of suspects in criminal cases.
All of the above are accepted in the name of the public interest. In many large cities, subway suicides are not reported on because it is agreed that doing so would encourage copycats. We ban cigarette ads because of the threat to public health but show no qualms about handing over the front page to frustrated losers whose sole accomplishment in life is slaughtering innocent people.
Is it really so far-fetched to suggest that we could live without most of this? Does anyone really need to see a picture of the latest whackjob? Does knowing what he had for breakfast or that he was always a bit of a loner help us to make sense of tragedy?
Responsible journalism means stopping to think for a moment whether the consequences of publishing certain information outweigh the public’s need for it. Why is it that the decisions come quick and fast in cases where an especially vocal interest group might be offended, but far more hesitantly when it comes to discouraging mass murder?
When fighting monsters, Nietzsche wrote, be careful that you do not become a monster yourself. When writing about them, he might well have advised today’s journalists and editors, beware that you are not creating new ones.