Heroes and Villains: Covering the Colorado Shooting

by Stephanie Brown,
Writing Intern

Members of the victims’ families comfort each other at the victims’ memorial.


On July 20, a man calling himself the Joker entered a movie theatre showing the new Batman film in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire. Twelve people died, and dozens of others were physically and emotionally wounded.

Jessica Ghawi

One of the twelve was 24-year-old Jessica Ghawi. When Obama arrived in Colorado to talk to the victims’ families, Jessica’s brother Jordan asked the President not to use the shooter’s name in his statement to the press. “Let us remember the names of the victims,” Jordan posted on Twitter on the day of the shooting, “and not the name of the coward who committed this act.” Obama did as the young man asked, and later that day, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced that the shooter’s name would not be spoken in his house; “We’re just going to call him ‘Suspect A.’”

Their actions are part of a new campaign to move the media’s focus off of the criminals and onto the victims. Search for “Colorado shooting” and you’ll see articles with titles like Remembering the victims and Stories of survival.

Jordan Ghawi got the ball rolling, but the campaign is backed by psychologists and criminologists who have been pointing out for years that those who commit crimes often do so for publicity. Their quests for notoriety escalate the violence of their crimes as they seek to “outdo” past offenders and set new and horrifying records.

“They want desperately to go down in infamy. Too often, we give them exactly what they crave,” Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University, said in an interview with the LA Times. Levin once spoke with Charles Manson, who claimed to be the most famous person in history. “The sad fact is,” said Levin, “that’s only the slightest exaggeration.”

Limiting the use of suspects’ names in the media sends the message that mass murder will not be rewarded with fame, and even suggests that those who commit violent acts are not worth mentioning. Taking the so-called “glory” away from the criminal in this way could actually discourage future attention-seekers from committing crimes.

In addition, spending less time on the criminal leaves more time for thinking of those who were affected by the crime. “You can probably ask people if they remember the shooters in Columbine, and they’d say Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, but I can’t remember a single victim,” Jordan told the press. He asked that people honor his sister and the other victims of the Colorado shooting by remembering their names instead of the name of their killer.

Those who survived, and the families of those who didn’t, will need a lot of emotional and financial support as they deal with the aftermath of the shooting. Highlighting their stories increases the chance that they can get the help they require.

Caleb Medley

Last Thursday, less than a week after the shooting, survivor Katie Medley gave birth to a baby boy. The happiness of the occasion was marred by the fact that her husband Caleb is currently in a medically induced coma with potential brain damage. Caleb was shot in the eye when the shooter entered the theatre. The couple has no health insurance, but their friend Michael West has set up a website for people who want to donate money to help cover Caleb’s hospital bills. Focusing on their story instead of the shooter’s can pull people together for a positive cause and possibly lessen the impact of the damage the shooter has done to this family.

Some people argue that focusing too closely on the victims and their families invades their privacy at an extremely emotional time, and can add to the burdens of grief and uncertainty they already bear. It’s good to give the victims a voice, objectors say, but not to follow them around with TV cameras.

Many reporters are also uneasy with the idea of holding back the shooter’s name, as it goes against the fundamental journalistic principle of reporting all available facts. Some fear it could start a trend of skating over information that people don’t want to hear. “Self-censorship can be very dangerous,” cautioned William Wheatley, retired executive vice president for NBC news. “I’m not indicating there aren’t times when self-censorship is appropriate, but they should be rare. It’s a slippery path, because at some point you find yourself not reporting information that the public deserves to have.” Others believe they have a responsibility to investigate the shooter’s life, because such stories inform the public about what causes someone to commit a violent crime and may indicate warning signs to look for in the future.

But there’s a difference between simply reporting the shooter’s name and background and painting him as an eerily fascinating, even awe-inspiring figure. The man who walked into the theatre that night called himself the Joker, after the supervillain who escaped death and defeated Batman countless times. All too often, the media treats violent criminals as if they were indeed “supervillains,” rather than as disturbed individuals engaging in senseless acts. By focusing on the scandalous parts of the story, the media necessarily downplays the tragic and more human elements that are more deserving of our attention.

Veronica Moser-Sullivan

Six-year-old Veronica Moser-Sullivan was at the theatre with her mother and her babysitter, thirteen-year-old Kaylan. When Veronica and her mother were shot, Kaylan called 911 and tried to perform CPR on the little girl. She stayed with them until the police came. Despite Kaylan’s heroic efforts, Veronica was the youngest person to die in the shooting.

Allie Young stood up to shout a warning when the shooter came in, but was shot in the neck. She told her friend Stephanie Davies to run. Instead, Stephanie pressed her fingers over the wound to stop the bleeding. As the shooter came down the aisle toward them, Stephanie pulled Allie back into the cover of the seats and pretended to be dead. The shooter walked right by them. SWAT swarmed in, and Stephanie carried Allie out of the theatre with the help of a stranger. Allie is now in the hospital and doing well.

Allie Young and Stephanie Davies with President Obama

What happened that night in the theatre was terrible. But stories like these attest to the incredible strength of the human spirit. There are other stories from that night, tales of courage and love that are far more powerful than one man’s resentment. By focusing on these stories, we celebrate the heroes instead of glorifying the villain.

So report that James Holmes walked into that theatre and opened fire. But then report that Jonathan Blunk died protecting his girlfriend and her brother; that Josh Nowlan is recovering after shielding his newlywed friends; that three of the five hospitals caring for victims of the shooting are waiving certain medical costs; and that the Aurora community is coming together to support the victims and their families. Focus on hope, not hatred.

Remember the victims.


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Title photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America
In-text photo credits: CNN, calebmedley.com