On Monday, a 17-year-old brought a gun to a Cincinnati high school, pulled it out in a classroom full of his peers and shot himself in front of them. Students fled the building, police surrounded it and no one else was hurt. But, yet again, the unfortunately familiar portrait of a shooting at an American schoolhouse was painted across our televisions and newspapers.
The student was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. His parents issued a brief statement through a hospital spokesperson. They asked the media to withhold his name. Initially, TV and newspaper reporters respected the family’s wishes. But people talk. And today, when people talk, they post. Gossip’s gone digital. Social media couldn’t be silenced. His name was out there.
A day after the shooting, police officers released their written report about the incident. It contained the teenager’s name. The media and the public all had access to it. But just because you have it, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to use it.
All four Cincinnati TV stations continued to follow the family’s wishes. They did not report the name. However, The Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper did. Its editor explained why in a statement.
Good journalists get sick over these decisions. Really good journalists have discussions with other really good journalists about these decisions. Even then, it’s messy.
It’s one reason the industry has the Society of Professional Journalists. The organization encourages its members to follow its Code of Ethics, a creed of voluntary ethical guidelines to help journalists when things get deep. Part of the Code says: Seek truth and report it. But another part says: Minimize harm.
The teenager, one year away from being an adult, did a very public thing. A suicide attempt at home would have never made the news. Instead, police say he brought a gun to school and put a lot of people in danger. That’s breaking the law. He made himself a headline. His name is being circulated. And so is the wrong one. The right one has been confirmed. Somebody needs to report the truth. Somebody needs to get it right. And what about his background? Could knowing his name and understanding him possibly help other parents identify warning signs in their own kids? Not to mention, censorship of any kind makes me uneasy.
But if you stop there, you haven’t stepped into the gray.
He’s a minor. It’s an attempted suicide. Both of which, under other circumstances, most media outlets would go out of their way to protect. Yes, he brought a gun to school. Yes, he fired it. But reportedly, his only target was himself. School administrators will inform parents. The information will get to those who need to know it. His family has respectfully asked for privacy. They are hurting. And it would seem their son has been hurting even longer. How will having his name permanently in print or forever recorded contribute to that? Be a human. Do the right thing. Minimize harm.
If I were still in the news business and had to make the decision, I would not report his name. But getting to that decision would have taken time. Time I hope every newsroom takes no matter how big or small the story may be.