Why KUOW Didn’t (Initially) Name The SPU Shooter
In journalism school, student reporters learn to never, ever, ever name suspects until they have been charged in court.
The reason is simple and, arguably, humane: The tip could be wrong, the police could be wrong, which would be incredibly hurtful to the person named.
That was the principle the KUOW newsroom followed on Friday morning after the Seattle Police Department identified the 26-year-old man who, according to all accounts and video footage, opened fire at Seattle Pacific University on Thursday afternoon. One man has died, two others were shot and one was wounded in the shuffle.
Listeners asked why we hadn't named the gunman when every other media outlet in Seattle has named him. Some praised us – but because they believe the shooter doesn’t merit attention, not because of journalistic ethics.
(The gunman was named on air during the National Public Radio broadcast, however.)
On KUOW’s Week In Review, Joni Balter noted the movement online to not name the shooter, #dontnametheshooter: “I think it’s not to give them that big adrenaline rush for, you know, you’re now famous in this weird way – but you’re now famous, you’re now known.”
Eli Sanders, a Stranger editor and regular on Week In Review, agreed.
“The Seattle Police Department in its press conference yesterday made a point of trying to redirect the media’s attention from the shooter and questions about the shooter to the bravery of multiple people at Seattle Pacific University,” he said.
“As a member of the media and I guess as a citizen, I feel an urge to resist that redirection,” he said. “I think we can hold both things in our minds at once. I think it’s important to understand who it is that does something like this and why to the extent that we can. And that’s a very important role for the media to play.”
We called Kelly McBride, a well-known journalism ethicist, and asked her directly: Were we being overly cautious?
In short: Yes.
“The identity of the gunman has been widely distributed and vetted and nobody is challenging it,” said McBride, who works at Poynter, a journalism institute in Florida. “So in this case it’s really just about making sure that he’s going to be charged.”
She continued: “When I look at the ethics and your duty as journalists, your primary duty is to your audience. So I think it’s perfectly defensible to name him at this point in time. It’s pretty clear that everyone has the right name. It’s pretty clear that he’s going to be charged with something.”
And what about using “suspected” and “alleged” as qualifiers?
“Those qualifiers do not help at all,” McBride said. “They don’t protect you from any liability. If it really is an alleged crime and there is a doubt that it really happened, it helps convey that to the audience.”
But in this case, those qualifiers aren’t necessary and could be confusing.
After our conversation with McBride, we changed our mind. We will be naming him: Aaron Rey Ybarra.