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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Journalism and Erasing History

Justin Bourque, the alleged Moncton shooter
A student of mine (and an excellent one, at that), asked me to comment on a policy stated by Sun Media where they will no longer mention the name of the man who shot and killed three RCMP officers in New Brunswick.

My student wrote:

I came across this on Reddit this morning. 


Interesting position on Sun News regarding this situation. They definitely raise some noteworthy points regarding mass shootings and how media plays into these situations. 

Sun Media (a Canadian Fox News wannabe) announced that in honor of the murdered Mounties, they will no longer mention the name of Justin Bourque, the man accused of the shootings. Sun isn't the only news outlet to stake this claim which says it is in support of the victims.

I find this self-serving. I assume that Sun Media is following the lead of Anderson Cooper on CNN, Cooper announced that he will no longer give the oxygen of publicity to mass murderer whether in Moncton or Santa Barbara. The ostensible reason for doing so is to remember and honor the names of the victims and not just the names of the killers.

A more interesting exploration would be to look at how the media cover crime overall. We are drenched in crime reporting from all sorts of media, from the tabloids (where this traditionally predominates) to the so-called quality journalistic platforms like the CBC and the New York Times.

Yet there should be a role for contextual crime reporting in the media, but the disproportionate nature of the reporting and the lack of any explanation for the crimes only serves to heighten a sense of "moral panic". Moral panic as an idea goes back to the 1840s and is defined by the OED as " instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society." As a result, the usual beneficiaries of this heightened concern are often the more conservative elements in society including religious denominations and political parties.

Suppose we stop naming names of mass murderers, how far will this erasing of the names of villains extend?

If journalism is supposed to be the "first draft of history" how will future citizens (and future historians) handle this absence of names? By that same specious argument, can we assume journalism should no longer mention Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot or Osama Bin Laden?

Refusing to ever mention Justin Bourque's name, the alleged (and not yet convicted) killer of the three Mounties in Moncton, New Brunswick, will not honour the dead at all.  It may only serve to make the public wonder, what else are the media not reporting?

It may serve to give the dubious impression that the media are "on your side" by imbuing a supposed sense of solidarity on the part of media organizations with the victims. However, this is more p.r. than journalism. And bad p.r. at that.

Erasing names is a lot easier than looking more deeply at the causes of our present predicament. It also ignores the public's fascination and obsession with the culture of violence for which the media is largely to blame.

But that would be a lot more uncomfortable for the media to admit.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, really great blog.

    Sun News is right but for the wrong reasons.

    Research is showing that those psychotics so inclined may "copy" Bourque's media-glorified behaviour, just as some do for suicides.

    I think the right thing to do is to ask experts in behavioural psychology or criminology prior to print and then make a sound judgment.

    Seems like Sun rushed straight to judgment, without the right facts. Could have applied this logic to anything they do, no?