Omaha massacre: The media’s troubling role

Robert Hawkins, 19, was likely headed for obscurity. A high school dropout afflicted with mental problems and drug addiction, Hawkins spent his youth in and out of group homes and treatment centers. He’d been in trouble with the law, and recently lost his

Robert Hawkins, 19, was likely headed for obscurity. A high school dropout afflicted with mental problems and drug addiction, Hawkins spent his youth in and out of group homes and treatment centers. He’d been in trouble with the law, and recently lost his job at McDonald’s. Still, said Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune, Hawkins got one thing right. In a chilling suicide note to friends and family last week, he wrote, “Just think tho I’m gonna be [expletive] famous.” Clad in camouflage, Hawkins proceeded to open fire with an AK-47 in the Westroads Mall in Omaha, shooting eight people to death before killing himself. Then Hawkins got what he was hoping for, said Jon Friedman in Marketwatch.com. His horrible rampage—and his troubled life story—received saturation coverage in the U.S. and around the world. “How did he know he’d be immortalized? Simple. He knew he could count on his enablers: The media.”

It’s an awful, and all too familiar, pattern, said Mona Charen in National Review Online. From Columbine to Virginia Tech to Omaha, deeply disturbed young men feeling they have nothing to lose go out with what, in their sick minds, is a blaze of glory. But it doesn’t have to be this way. “What is desperately needed is just a modicum of public spiritedness by television, radio, and print journalists.” Just as the names of rape victims are withheld in news stories, the media should refrain from using

the names or faces of the killers. That would tell nuts and loners they will no longer get the attention that they crave through an act of mass murder. “Perhaps then we will deny oxygen to this terrible fire.”

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Dream on, said Gil Gross in Newsday. In today’s fiercely competitive, Internet-saturated media environment, it’s unrealistic to expect to keep that kind of information under wraps. Besides, the killer’s background and identity can be an important part of the story, shedding light, for instance, on how somebody with mental illness was able to buy a gun, as the Virginia Tech killer did. But what we in the media can do “is remove the celebrity status.” We need not track down everyone who knew the killer in school. And please, let’s “stop filling our airwaves and column inches with psychologists making absurd hypotheses about people who never creased their couches.” We can mention the killer’s name in passing “to place the blame,” but we must not grant him the fame he killed for. The victims, not the killer, should be the focus of the story.

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