Don’t Say Their Names: The Media’s Role in Sensationalizing Mass Shootings and Why it Needs to Stop

Research shows that by publicizing the name, image, and motives of mass shooters, the media is inadvertently giving these criminals the fame they desire and inciting more shootings.

Several camera crews, reporters, and journalists arrive at Columbine High School.
The media descending in droves to Columbine High School on April 20, 1999
Photo Credit: Ed Andrieski/AP/REX/Shutterstock

On April 20th, 1999, two male students opened fire at their high school in Littleton, Colorado, killing 12 students and 1 teacher before turning their guns on themselves. While the attack lasted for approximately 49 minutes, it received over 40 news segments, many of them live breaking news stories, just in the immediate aftermath. Both CNN and FOX News received historically high ratings. This heinous event is now known worldwide by one word: Columbine. It’s coverage in 1999 received more viewership than the 1992 or 1996 presidential elections, the Rodney King verdict, and the deaths of both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. The shooting was mentioned on four different TIME Magazine covers that year, more than any other event or person, with the perpetrators appearing on two covers (one more than their victims). As time passed, this coverage has proven to have done much more harm than good.

On April 16, 2007, a male student at Virginia Tech University killed 32 students and faculty before fatally shooting himself. The perpetrator mailed a lengthy manifesto to NBC News, where he cited the Columbine killers as his inspiration. This is just one example of media contagion and copycat effects of mass shootings. It was not the first, and most definitely not the last. The contagion effect states that one mass shooting incident increases the likelihood of other instances of mass shootings to occur in the near future. This differs slightly from a copycat effect, in which the potential shooter attempts to copy the actions of a previous shooter, typically aiming to kill more people. These effects occur largely in part to the enormous amount of media coverage mass shooters receive, including the amount of times their names are said, photos are shown, and motives/manifestos are spoken about. A clear example of this phenomenon occurred in 2015 when the Charleston Church shooter made national headlines in June, and was cited in August by the shooter at Roanoke Television, who also made national headlines. Then, in October, the Umpqua Community College shooter made national headlines and cited the Roanoke Television shooter.

Infographic displaying the number of copycat crimes after the Columbine shooting as of 2015.
Infographic displaying the Columbine Effect
Source: Mother Jones. Note: This infographic was released in 2015 and is not updated to reflect the updated data.

Another unfortunate truth about mass shootings is that these perpetrators are seeking fame-even if they are no longer around to witness it. Both the Isla Vista and Virginia Tech shooters sent their manifestos to local news networks. The Lafayette Theater shooter left a journal and a thank you note to the Charleston Church shooter at the scene. The Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter called a local news station during the attack and then checked Facebook to see if he had gone viral. All of these shooters made national headlines, just as they wanted.

In an effort to remove this incentive to possible future mass shooters, the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Team has teamed up with the I Love U Guys Foundation and the FBI to create the Don’t Name Them campaign. This campaign implores the media to stop naming mass shooters once they have been apprehended by the police. Similarly, the No Notoriety Campaign, founded by parents of Alex Taves, a victim of the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting, asks the media to eliminate gratuitous use of the name and photos of the killers, shifting the focus instead, to victims, heroes, and survivors.

The No Notoriety Campaign Protocol.

According to McBride and Castillo, 2021, “ethics policies produce better journalism when they affirmatively guide journalists on what to do, rather than delineate prohibitions on what they shouldn’t.” Both of these campaigns, along with recommendations from the American Psychological Association, provide suggestions to journalists on how they can continue to inform the public, while refraining from sensationalizing these tragedies. Many journalists, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, NBC News’ Megyn Kelly, and former governor and FOX News host Mike Huckabee, have already started omitting the names of mass shooters from their reports, showing that this way of reporting can be done on a wider scale.

“Sociologists and criminologists should study the criminal-but let’s not glorify the attacker by giving them valuable airtime. Don’t share their manifestos, their letters, their Facebook posts. Be above the sensationalism. Tell the real stories-the stories of the victims, the heroes, and the communities who come together to help the families heal.”


Image by the American Psychological Association, 2023

In addition to causing multiple casualties and devastating communities, mass shootings leave some survivors, bystanders, and reporters with post-traumatic stress and create extensive fear among the larger public (Langford & Madfis, 2017). Limiting the amount of coverage given to mass shooters and their heinous crimes would greatly reduce these feelings, instead of exaggerating them.

Though the large amount of mass shootings in the United States is a complex issue, with improvements needed in multiple areas, a change in media coverage on these events is a large step in the right direction towards reducing these tragedies.

“Notoriety, infamy, and ‘press’ are material motivation factors for violent/like minded individuals to get their ‘time in the sun’ … A No Notoriety protocol by the media makes sense and can be implemented immediately.”


Written by: Olivia Lombardo