City Lights: Thoughts on gunmen, victims and the media that reports them

It's rare that I remember a magazine cover a decade and a half later, but one that has stuck in my mind — and not in a good way — is the issue of Time from the week after the Columbine High School massacre.

Anyone from the class of 1998, the last before Columbine, can probably remember the moment they first heard about the shooting that claimed 15 lives and left dozens more wounded. It's the kind of story that becomes automatic front-page news, and a magazine cover, in particular, calls for a searing image: shots of weeping survivors, a gun-themed graphic, candles outside of the school.

Instead, Time's editors opted for a pair of color close-ups of the two killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, grinning into the camera above the headline "The Monsters Next Door." The victims appeared in black-and-white around the cover's perimeter.

Shortly afterward, the magazine printed a curt retort on its letters page: "I'm horrified to see the two killers on your cover. Shame on you for glorifying such people!"

Flash forward 13 years, and the nation is reeling from yet another mass shooting — this one at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin with seven dead, including the suspected gunman. Just days ago, it seems, the Colorado theater massacre slipped off the front page, and now here we are again.

At the time of this writing, the Wisconsin suspect has been identified as ... should I even give his name? The Los Angeles Times has posted it, as have Fox News, USA Today and just about every other publication.

No doubt you know the Colorado suspect's name as well. Does every mention "glorify" them further? Or, once the cat is out of the bag, is there any sense in playing ignorant?

Journalism has a number of moral gray areas, and covering mass slayings ranks high on the list. Our job, first and foremost, is to provide information, and we pride ourselves on not suppressing news. If an incident like the theater or temple tragedies occurred and the media refused to release the identity of the shooter, would the public protest?

No doubt, yes. An essential part of freedom is our right to know.

At the same time, there has been a rising tide in recent weeks calling for the opposite in the media's treatment of killers. In the wake of the Colorado shooting, the brother of one of the victims started a campaign to suppress the suspect's name, and President Obama even refrained from using it in a speech after meeting with him, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Film critic Roger Ebert, in a New York Times editorial, voiced a similar sentiment: "I'm not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. ... Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again."

Not long ago, the Independent covered a mass shooting of its own. Last October, a gunman allegedly slew eight people, including his ex-wife, at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, in what quickly became labeled the worst mass shooting in Orange County history.

Since the suspect and two of the victims came from Huntington Beach, we leaped on the story as we would any breaking news. Our next issue featured nearly top-to-bottom front-page coverage of the shooting, including profiles of the two local victims, three news stories about the suspect, an editorial and a mention in Chris Epting's In the Pipeline column.

Did we include the suspect's name and picture? Of course, and I'm not saying it was the wrong decision.

Once a paper starts making moral judgments about what its readers should and shouldn't know, it starts veering toward censorship — and opens up even more gray areas.

For example, if we withhold the identity of murder suspects, do we decline to name rape suspects as well? Should we continue to run the police log, which might give ideas to would-be criminals?

I don't regret the way we handled the salon tragedy. But as I hold that issue from last October in my hands, I feel proud that we put full stories about the victims on the front page instead of reducing them to a brief mention. And I'm glad we didn't print a grinning close-up of the suspect and label him "The Monster Next Door" or something similar.

By the way, here are the names of those Columbine victims on the edges of the Time cover: Lauren Townsend, Cassie Bernall, Corey DePooter, Rachel Scott, Matt Kechter, Daniel Mauser, John Tomlin, Dave Sanders, Isaiah Shoels, Daniel Rohrbough, Kelly Fleming, Steve Curnow and Kyle Velasquez.

You can find them all on Google, but they're likely not household names. The victims next door seldom are.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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