Media consider whether killers should be named

NEW YORK --- "Just think tho," wrote the 19-year-old Omaha shooter in his suicide note. "I'm gonna be ... famous." And he was, at least for a while.


Should the media have denied Robert Hawkins the odious fame he coveted, by refusing to identify him by name? It's an intriguing idea, and one that has been suggested by media columnists since the horrible rampage earlier this month.

After all, the theory goes, why give such killers, even in death, precisely what they wished for? And in the long run, if we didn't name them, maybe the next deranged loner who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory wouldn't pull the trigger, because it wouldn't be worth it.

"We in the communications world practically enabled the kid by giving him, posthumously, what he wanted all along," wrote media analyst Jon Friedman, one of several media voices to suggest a no-name policy. "Shame on us ... Show some class and guts, folks. Please."

Yet as much as it may to appeal to our sense of justice, there are at least three forceful arguments against the idea. The first goes to the nature of journalism and its duty to inform the public as completely as possible about events that affect it.

Another, according to a number of criminologists and forensic psychologists, is that it wouldn't work as a deterrent to other deranged loners out there, who are usually more interested in the crime itself than who committed it.

And finally there's the practical argument: Even if the news media agreed unanimously to withhold the name, who'd be able to stop the rampant speculation across the Web, speculation that could cause harm via rumor and innuendo?

"I'm ambivalent," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in independent practice in Sacramento, Calif. "On the one hand I want to know who these buggers are. On the other, the notion that they'd be denied this flash of meteoric fame -- there's the justice of it: All right, you sociopathic creep. Nobody's going to know where YOUR grave is!"

Criminology professor James Alan Fox, author of five books on mass killers, thinks withholding names would be almost irrelevant, because people rarely remember the names much anyway.

"It's the place that people remember," says Mr. Fox, of Northeastern University. And of course, the crimes themselves. What inspires copycats, he says, "is the act, not the celebrity of the actor."