To the credit of most major news organizations, the names of the eight men responsible for the Paris attacks last week have so far appeared as little more than footnotes in most prominent news articles. Maybe that’s because it’s taken time to confirm their identities, or because eight names don’t fit well into a punchy headline — or maybe it’s because the focus of journalism is shifting away from the perpetrators of terrorism and toward their victims.
If this is the case, it’s the result of a public outcry that has spread across Facebook and Twitter over the last several years, particularly in light of the rise in shooting rampages across the United States. In response to the Aurora, Colorado theatre shooting in 2012, grieving parents of the victims started the No Notoriety project, an activist group dedicated to preventing the media from sharing the names, photos, and stories of shooters and instead focusing on the victims.
“Recognize that the prospect of infamy could serve as a motivating factor for other individuals to kill others and could inspire copycat crimes,” No Notoriety’s website urges readers. “Keep this responsibility in mind when reporting.”
Journalists are human beings, and they have a job to do. Most of the time they do it admirably, but too often terrorism is seen as a juicy story rather than a tragedy — one that can be dragged out for weeks as journalists unearth every available detail of the attackers’ lives like paparazzi. The resulting articles are often sensationalistic, motivated by a desire to get more clicks (and thus sell more advertising) by naming the perpetrators, hunting down their photos on Facebook, digging into their personal histories, and interviewing their friends, coworkers, neighbours, and families for a thrilling glimpse into the mind of a murderer.
Although perpetrators’ identties usually aren’t as widely shared in cases where there are multiple attackers as they are when there’s a lone-wolf shooter, articles like CBC’s “Paris attacks: What we know about the attackers and suspected accomplices” (November 17, 2015) demonstrate that there’s always a market for this kind of contextual knowledge. The article lists the eight attackers by name (including the two who are, as of press time, still alive and at large) and briefly summarizes their backgrounds before and after radicalization. There’s nothing wrong with the quality of the article — but the fact that it’s standard for the media to give terrorists the notoriety they want is alarming. Within the CBC article is a quote attributed to the Telegraph in which an anonymous source states, “[One of the Paris attackers] and I played cards together, we laughed and joked. He talked to everyone, he was very generous … [he] used to go to discos, he would drink alcohol, smoke. But he stopped drinking alcohol in the last year.” What purpose does this information serve?
Intentionally or not, it humanizes the perpetrator. Dunbar’s number, known colloquially as the “Monkeysphere” thanks to a popular 2007 article by David Wong on Cracked. com, states that the size of the neocortex in primates correlates to a certain maximum number of people to whom we can relate socially — somewhere between 100 and 250 for humans, fewer for other primates with smaller neocortexes. When we learn details about a person’s likes, dislikes, and values, even if it’s someone we’ve never met, they brush against the periphery of our Monkeysphere, becoming more “real” to us. Is that what happens when we read about terrorists’ hobbies and personalities and families in the news? Maybe that’s why we find this style of sensational journalism in the wake of a massacre so alluring — because the danger is a little bit closer, a little more real, like watching Shark Week in an IMAX theatre. But as the No Notoriety project points out, it’s possible that introducing readers to terrorists in this way could inspire future attackers.
It could be argued that on a practical level, investigating and revealing the personal histories of attackers helps spread awareness about what warning signs to their friends and families — but it also creates an environment in which people who are fantasizing about or planning acts of terrorism anticipate celebrity treatment if they’re successful. Additionally, any attack in which the perpetrator is Muslim automatically seems to receive greater media attention, contributing to the rapidly growing fear and hatred of Islam in the West — which is arguably one of ISIL’s greatest objectives, as it spurs radicalization of new potential recruits.
Whether or not we can definitively state that the media contributes to a culture of glorifying terrorism, these intimate portraits of terrorists in the news should be reconsidered, if only for the sake of respect to the victims and their families. Journalists should tell the larger story of why and how the attack happened, and leave the attackers’ identities as an educational but tragic footnote.
Editor’s note: We regret to announce that Kodie Cherrille has stepped down as Editor-in-Chief. Valerie Franklin will be serving as interim Editor-in-Chief in his stead until the hiring process to fill the position is completed in December.