Publishing the Dylann Roof manifesto: Is media coverage helping him?

Dylann Roof, charged with the Charleston, S.C., church killings, is being linked to a hateful manifesto. Typically, publicizing manifestos can be harmful, some psychologists say. But this case might be different.

Reuters
A photograph posted to a website with a racist manifesto appears to show Dylann Roof, the suspect in Wednesday's Charleston church massacre, posing with a confederate flag and a gun in an unknown location.

Dylann Roof’s photos, posing with a Confederate flags and a guns, are now spattered across the Internet. The hate-filled manifesto attributed to him is being widely posted and parsed.

Does that only help spread his ideology and encourage others to turn to violence?

After other mass shootings, some critics and psychologists have issued a plea for media outlets to give as little voice to the perpetrators as possible. The need is to deny suspects the apparent glory they sought, to discourage copycats, and to avoid quoting propaganda that sometimes fuels other shooters.

Yet there are significant differences between this case and those of other mass shootings, suggests Ari Schulman, executive editor of the New Atlantis, who has argued in the past for not giving undue media attention to killers and their manifestos.

These victims weren't random. Mr. Roof didn't try to kill himself or get himself killed. The writings suggest there could be real political and ideological motivations that deserve attention, so long as the media doesn’t romanticize the ramblings, says Mr. Schulman, executive editor of the New Atlantis.

"If you stand back and treat it with awe, then you’re giving it more power than it should have," he says. "It should be regarded as a piece of propaganda."

The attention to the racist philosophies that apparently drove the shootings in a historic Charleston, S.C., church last week can help expose fissures of racism that often get ignored, media analysts say.

Already, Roof's manifesto has drawn attention to one group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose website apparently inspired many of his opinions. Its president has given contributions to Republican presidential candidates including Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both of whom have said they will not keep the money.

In a statement published Sunday, Earl Holt, the group's president, distanced himself and the group from Roof's actions. "The CofCC is hardly responsible for the actions of this deranged individual merely because he gleaned accurate information from our website," the statement reads.

The danger in media coverage of manifestos is that it gives shooters the attention they crave.

"It becomes difficult to deny that the media coverage given to mass shooting perpetrators has sent the message that committing a spectacular act of murder or killing is a great way to get attention," argued James Knoll, editor in chief emeritus of Psychiatric Times, in a 2013 article.

But there isn't really a choice to ignore Roof's alleged manifesto, says Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs for the Poynter Institute, which teaches best practices in journalism. 

“It’s very easy to ignore an opinion or ignore a point of view because it’s revolting and held by a very small number of people," says Ms. McBride. "It’s very comfortable to say we shouldn’t give that any credibility in the world of journalism because it will cause more harm than good. Whenever we're talking about not acknowledging something, we have to instead look for ways to acknowledge it and minimize the harm it causes by acknowledging it."

She cites a Los Angeles Times piece about Elliot Rodger, the shooter in Isla Vista, Calif., who killed six people and injured 14 others in 2014 before killing himself in a shooting spree apparently driven in part by misogynistic rage.

"He said hateful, hateful things about women, and the L.A. Times had psychologists and psychiatrists analyze it, and say this is evidence of sociopathic behavior," says McBride. "They annotated it in a way that it was impossible for anyone to read it and say I agree with this guy. It gave them the tools they needed."

Schulman agrees that, in this instance, there are some "clear mandates" for journalists to address the contents of the manifesto. They key, he says, is for them to do so "respectfully and not in a way that gives it the power it's trying to seek."

Instead, he says, it should be understood as "propaganda by a person whose only power came from their ability to get their hands on a gun."

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