French media stops publishing photos of terrorists: Could US media follow?

Several major news organizations in France have vowed not to publish the names or photos of the perpetrators of mass killings, something some US citizens have been demanding for years. 

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters/File
A view shows an edition of the daily Le Monde in the Le Monde office in Paris June 25, 2010.

Readers of France's Le Monde newspaper will no longer be exposed to photographs of the perpetrators of terrorist killings, as it and a number of other news organizations say they will no longer publish the names or images of those responsible for violent attacks. 

In an editorial following the murder of an elderly priest by two men claiming allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Le Monde said it would cease to publish photographs of people who carry out killings, "to avoid the potential effect of posthumous glorification." 

Television station BFM-TV, Catholic newspaper La Croix, and Europe 1 radio have announced that they will do the same, with the France 24 television channel expected to follow suit, The Guardian reports. In addition, Europe 1 will no longer broadcast the names of terrorists on the air. 

A number of Americans, particularly the families of victims of mass shootings and people working in law enforcement, have called on the US media to implement similar policies so as not to encourage "copycat" killings in the wake of highly publicized tragedies. But while some journalists, such as CNN's Anderson Cooper, have vowed to refrain from using the names of killers whenever possible, media experts are divided on whether no-name or no-photo policies could - and should - be widely implemented. 

Even in France, where such policies are becoming more common, there is resistance. 

"Our duty is to inform, it's the right of citizens to be informed," said Michel Field, the executive director of news at the state-run France Télévisions, in a statement, as reported by The Guardian. "And we must resist this race towards self-censorship and grand declarations of intention."

Some American journalists and media scholars have voiced similar sentiments, saying that withholding information about mass killers could do more harm than good if the public feels they're being kept in the dark. 

"We need more [data] to avoid misinformation and conspiracy theories bred by ignorance and confusion," writes James Warren of The Pointer Institute for Media Studies, for The New York Times. "We need more to understand specifics of individual events, like what happened at the Oregon community college. We need to understand these acts as well as we routinely understand why planes crash. We need more light, not less." 

Others, such as investigative reporter Mark Follman, say that while "a blanket ban isn't realistic or appropriate," media outlets can make effective adjustments in the way they cover mass shootings without omitting the identity of the perpetrators entirely. 

For a model, media organizations could follow similar guidelines to those implemented after a wave of teen suicides in the 1980s, suggests Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill who studies the social impacts of technology.

Applied to mass killings, these guidelines could include not releasing details of the methods and manner of the killings, such as what kind of gun was used, not publicizing killers' social media profiles and interests, and not revealing the name of the killer until several weeks after the attack, she writes for The Atlantic. 

Though a policy to "magically erase" the names and photos of mass killers from media coverage is "not going to happen," Dr. Tufekci told NPR, the American media have proven in recent years that they are capable of a widespread shift in the way they cover tragic events. She cited as an example beheading videos from the Islamic State, which were once "shared widely" through both social and mass media but are now rarely seen. 

"So I think we could do the same with these mass killers," Tufekci said. "I'm not saying never, ever mention their name. I'm not saying never, ever show their picture. What I'm saying is, let's develop sensible guidelines so that the coverage of such mass shootings is not done on the killer's own terms."

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