The Crusaders Keeping Killers’ Names Offline After Mass Shootings
Tom Teves woke in the middle of the night to his wife shouting: “Oh my God.” That’s when he knew that someone must have been killed. It was Tuesday morning, October 2, just a few hours after a shooter opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas. Reports of the mass shooting had started trickling in, including the cell phone alert that had woken Teves’s wife, Caren. Neither of them could sleep. It was a reminder of their own personal tragedy. And Caren had work to do.
She posted to Twitter, “beyond heartbroken for the families of the dead.” Then she waited for the news to get worse. When CNN wrapped its digital stories in a banner reading “deadliest mass shooting,” she wrote that the site should take it down. Caren tweeted about complaints from around the web that NPR and the Today Show had illustrated their coverage with multiple pictures of the shooter. It was a few days before Caren could post her own meme, the one she makes every time there’s another mass shooting. It’s a collage of the faces of the victims of Las Vegas under a banner that reads, “These names. These photos. These stories.” Like the other posts, it’s always tagged: #NoNotoriety.
The Teves’s son, Alex, was murdered, along with 11 others, in the 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Since then, the Teveses have become central figures in a movement to dim the spotlight that the press shines on mass killers. Through their organization, No Notoriety, they advocate for members of the media to obey a set of rules that they think will help reverse the mass shooting trend line: Only use the killer’s name once; don’t publish aggrandizing photos of the shooter. Though journalists might push back on rules that limit the spread of information, a growing body of research suggests that mass shootings—like suicides—can have a contagion effect, with information about a single incident inspiring repeat performances. That research inspired the FBI, in 2014, to launch the Don’t Name Them campaign, and news organizations to sign onto No Notoreity’s pledge to limit sensational descriptions of mass shooters.
But there are limits to what a single campaign can accomplish. Though Tom and Caren Teves’s call to action is focused primarily on the national media, the internet has amplified the effect of the coverage of mass shootings. Each photo, story, and television clip exists in a virtual eternity, where it can be passed around the web to grow steadily more notorious. Backchannel spoke with Tom and Caren Teves about the ethics of writing about mass shootings, and whether the internet is really the problem.
Alexis Fitts: How did you first decide to start the No Notoriety project?
Tom: The thought is not original. People have been talking about it for years. But it’s like anything else: Until you have some type of call to action, the average person’s too busy raising the kids and paying the mortgage to do something. We were on vacation in Hawaii and got a call at 4:30 in the morning, basically telling us, “My son has been shot and we can’t find him.” So we’re turning on television and all we could see was about the killer in the killer’s apartment. You couldn’t get information. It was chaotic in Denver. You couldn’t get anybody on the phone.
We finally get to Denver from coming back from vacation. Still, all I’m hearing about is, “the killer, the killer, the killer, the killer.” These things just aggravate you, obviously. Every day when I was in Denver picking [out] his body, the front page had a picture of the killer. There were no pictures of the heroes, and we just said, “This is enough.” And then we got into it. We did a lot of research and talked to a lot of academics and psychologists, and law enforcement, and everyone just agrees with us.
They’ll come back to you and say to you over and over again that we have to do the research so we can find out what motivated this person to do this—but they don’t have to continue to use their names. I would like you to call them the coward, but you can say “The shooter,” or whatever you want to. But you don’t have to use its name. It doesn’t deserve that.
I’m curious—were you surprised when you first started doing the research and finding out what kind of contagion effects there might be? And then what led you to focus on the idea of fame, rather than, say, gun control laws?
Tom: Because this is the one thing that the most reasonable and rational people [can change]. What I’m finding out is you, as a writer, can come to grips with the fact that there is a contagion effect. Well, study after study, the most recent one by ASU, is [that] the contagion effect is real, [and] that there’s people that argue, this coverage should be very localized. Because the more you spread it out, the more you create a call to action. You don’t publicize rape victims. You don’t publicize suicides, and the reason you don’t publicize suicides is because every time there was one there was a huge media crush. They stopped the media crush and the suicides stopped.
To me at least, it feels like the coverage is getting more saturated, because you have more outlets and a more constant news cycle and more vehicles for publicizing an event. I wonder if you remain optimistic about our ability to shift this trend—or is the internet just a beast that media companies will continue to feed at whatever cost?
Tom: Am I optimistic? I lost my first-born son, so I’m not optimistic about a whole lot of things, right? But I do believe it’s something that can be done now. You can change it today. You don’t need 51 senators. You don’t need to fight the NRA. The media can fix that overnight. It’s really not about the internet, because anybody can post anything on the internet. That’s not what these people are looking for.
Caren: I believe the part that is getting better is focusing on the heroes and the victims and the first responders. That part has grown tremendously over the last six years. There are a lot of local stations that say, “We’re going to limit the name and the photo,” but the large networks have a long way to go. People magazine made a commitment to the No Notoriety challenge: They limit it. Major networks in Denver have committed to it: They limit it. We have, in Phoenix, in the Arizona Republic, which is our main paper, we have several reporters there.
There has to be a balance between the information that’s put out there and public safety. We’re not trying to censor anything, just limit the name and the photo. Don’t publish manifestos; don’t show any aggressive poses or pictures with guns in their hands, because that’s what’s going to create a call to action and create this infamous type glorification.
What has the last week been like for you? I noticed that you’ve been tweeting things off of the No Notoriety handle. Is that the two of you?
Tom: No Notoriety is just Caren and I. There’s really nobody else. I laugh when people say, “Your organization.” Our organization is Caren and I, and mainly Caren when it comes to social media. She just uses me as a mouthpiece for her. She’s really the brains behind the thing.
I know you guys used to avoid talking with journalists who use killers’ names in their stories. Is that still your policy?
Caren: We’ve shifted. In the beginning, when we said, “Are you gonna show the killer and talk about that at length?” And they would say, “Yes,” we said, “Well, we’re not coming on.” That was something that we regret, because then we have our voice taken away, and our message doesn’t get out because someone else is doing the wrong thing. So since then if they say, “Yeah we are,” we still speak to those people because we need our voice so that our message will still get out.