As mass shootings have proliferated in this country, so has the debate over how much focus news organizations should put on the shooters versus the victims.
Some argue the shooters should never be named to avoid giving them any notoriety they crave. But news organizations also have an obligation to provide information (who is the shooter and why did he or she act?). If they fail to commemorate the anniversaries of such deadly acts, they will inevitably get complaints, too, but it's hard to tell the story of what happened without at some point getting into some specificity as to what happened. NPR's current policy, which calls for judicious use of killers' names, can be found here.
Into this debate dropped two recent pieces NPR carried about the 25th anniversary of a shooting at the private Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., in which a student with a semiautomatic rifle killed a teacher and a fellow student, and wounded four people. The first piece was a Dec. 8 StoryCorps conversation between the imprisoned killer, Wayne Lo, and Greg Gibson, the father of one victim, heard on Morning Edition; the second was heard on the actual anniversary, Dec. 14, on All Things Considered, and included some of Gibson's thoughts on the conversation, but no audio of Lo.
My office got a small flurry of emails both before and immediately after the StoryCorps piece, asking that it not be aired or complaining about it. Survivors of the Simon's Rock shooting appeared to send most of them, and most expressed similar thoughts.
A Holyoke, Mass., listener named Anne Thalheimer wrote, "As a survivor of this kill [sic] spree, it is profoundly distressing that Wayne Lo is being given yet another national forum to raise his profile." Another survivor, Craig Sauer from Long Beach, Calif., wrote that airing Lo's voice "would be an insult not only to survivors of this particular crime, but to survivors of mass shootings generally."
Another listener wrote:
"Why would you give a killer a national platform? Even if you try to justify it by saying there is value in his message of 'reform' or whatever, you are giving a killer a certain measure of validation and worth that really isn't appropriate. You're giving him a tiny bit of fame, and a spotlight. Maybe you could instead shine some coverage on the lives he took and the lives he ruined and what we can learn from them. Not on him, not from him. Shame on you."
We got no complaints after the All Things Considered piece, so I've focused on the StoryCorps conversation, which ran five minutes, including the introduction. A few facts first: The conversation, which ran 55 minutes before it was edited down, was the first in person between Lo and Gibson, whose son Galen was murdered. It took place at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, where Lo is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
The controversy started after Gibson was interviewed in mid-October by Boston station WBUR (a piece that later formed the basis of the All Things Considered piece) and mentioned that he had talked to Lo for StoryCorps. Some of the survivors began campaigning for the piece to be pulled. NPR received a draft of the piece from StoryCorps on Nov. 22 and sent back comments asking "particularly for more context — more context to why the father was having the conversation with the shooter and more context about the shooter's mental state and these God voices he mentions," Kenya Young, the acting executive producer of Morning Edition told me. StoryCorps then asked for an extra week to work on getting the piece right, and the air date was pushed back a week from Dec. 1. "The result by the final airing was a much longer intro with the explanations needed and an extra clip from the father," she said.
I should note here that StoryCorps is produced by an independent nonprofit that selects and submits its interviews to Morning Edition, which has aired a weekly StoryCorps interview each Friday for many years. NPR has final control over what it airs on all of its own shows, such as Morning Edition, and can ask for changes or even decide not to air a particular segment.
NPR received the final mix from StoryCorps on Dec. 5, and it was reviewed by four people: Christopher Turpin, the acting head of the newsroom; Sarah Gilbert, the executive who oversees the newsmagazines; Young; and Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor. When the piece aired, it included an informal warning at the beginning: "We should say that this is an intimate conversation about murder. It could strike your ears in different ways, so I just wanted to warn you."
Young said she never questioned whether the piece should air, adding that "it was just a matter of getting it right." Since Lo has no chance of parole, she wrote, "I didn't see it as a stunt. The dad never absolves Lo and honestly at the end there's a sense of closure for the dad, though not forgiveness. I didn't see anything opportunistic or sensational from either side; on the contrary, I thought StoryCorps' approach for a tough conversation was handled quite well and with journalistic integrity."
Memmott told me: "Given the number of mass shootings in the country in recent years, we felt such a conversation was timely. Tough to listen to, certainly, but potentially important to understanding how such tragedies affect those they touch."
And, he said, Gibson in the piece acknowledged that others who were affected disagree with what he's doing. "Over the years, we and other media outlets have told stories about the anger and heartbreak suffered by those who do not want to ever hear a killer's name again," Memmott said. "But we do not feel this conversation exonerated the killer or glorified him in any way. It did not end with an expression of forgiveness. It is what StoryCorps' best conversations are — two people hearing each other out."
[According to a subsequent piece in The Berkshire Eagle, "Lo told The Eagle most of the hour-long recording was edited out, so while it created a segment about reconciliation between Gibson and him, Lo said most of the parts in which he expressed remorse for his victims were cut."]
A few other notes: StoryCorps executives pointed to others who wanted the interview aired, including a survivor who posted several Twitter messages and a friend of Galen Gibson. And Michael Garofalo, the StoryCorps executive producer, said, "We did circulate broadcast times and where the piece would appear online to survivors so that they could avoid it if they needed to."
My thoughts: The complaints e-mailed to the NPR newsroom are always a good reminder that not everyone will agree on what constitutes acceptable journalism. Gibson himself acknowledged that others would be unhappy with the conversation.
But the All Things Considered piece a few days later had a specific focus on the victims and survivors of mass shootings, answering the concerns of some of those who wrote. (The Simon's Rock event shares an anniversary date with the shooting, 20 years later, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn.) NPR handled the coverage with care, including not rushing the broadcast of the StoryCorps piece, so that it could be put in proper context. The newsroom used its own judgment as to what was newsworthy in the interview. That's the kind of care every piece should get.