An Open Letter to the Media: Stop the Incentive


"Yoohoo. I'll make you famous."

It's a line from Young Guns. Emilio Estevez is Billy the Kid. The movie is one of my favorites. But when I stop to consider the fact that history immortalized a man made famous for killing people when the west was wild and news couldn't travel faster than a horse could carry its rider, I wonder if The Kid ever realized he was nobody until the newspapers said he wasn't.

There's plenty of myth vs. reality, to be sure. Legend has it he took the lives of 21 men (one for each year of his life) but according to researchers, The Kid was small potatoes compared to many of the outlaws of his time. There was petty theft and cattle rustling, but biographical information points to the newspapers for glorifying him as their headline favorite, crediting him with the deaths of so many more than he was responsible for.

And yet there are books and movies and museums dedicated to a young man who, as part of a posse, gunned down a sheriff and a deputy and another that killed three others execution style. Singly, The Kid is said to have killed four men. Two were in self-defense and two while escaping from jail.

It was a different world and a different time. But the media made him into a permanent fixture, glorified his actions, and people gladly handed over their money to buy up the papers with The Kid in the headlines. And as a former newspaper reporter with a string of bylines on stories about murderers, sex offenders, and fatal car accidents, I can promise you that editors were probably just as happy then to fill the front page with the sensational as they are now because that is what sells. The news being reported may have been heart-breaking to someone somewhere as was the case in a few of the small town murders I covered, and I can attest to wanting to cry for the victims' families just as much as I inwardly fist-pumped the fact that I was getting another byline on the front page.

No one ever got all worked up about the front page feature about the fourth high school senior to make Eagle Scout that year but the entire newsroom was abuzz with excitement, even if macabre, when murder was part of the headline. Reporters are assigned to get what they can and get it first about the crime itself from the police reports, comments from neighbors and the murderer's third grade teacher and one from a grieving parent, and the daily papers lord their ability to get the news out first because they're the big boys and have the connections while the city papers pride themselves on the fact that their once a week publishing schedule allows for in-depth coverage. Twitter goes wild and the web explodes. And there's always a story on what they were like in high school with comments from classmates.

Either way, the role of the victim becomes shorter in subsequent coverage. Instead of headlining, it's part of the story about the murderer and the arraignment or the charges or how he or she was such a good kid and no one ever would have expected this. And then when the court coverage begins, again it's the murderer's name that the media holds on to because the media learned from Billy the Kid that bad things make you famous and they inadvertently passed that lesson on to all the world.

Yes, there are victim impact statements before juries are sent out to decide the fate of the headline of the day. And maybe I remember the name of every murder victim I wrote about as my mind automatically matches them with the name of the one who killed them. But what about the stories I read and see today? The mass shootings in movie theaters and schools and malls? Who's name is it that everyone remembers over the arguments about gun control and the general agreement from anyone not a member of  Westboro Baptist Church that everyone who is a member is a giant asshole for even thinking about picketing the funerals of Connecticut school shooting victims.

Maybe because the murder stories I covered only ever involved one suspect and one victim it's easy for me to remember. Maybe if I was covering today's news I'd focus on the name of the suspect because then I would be able to channel my grief into anger because seeing the names and ages of those that died is too much to bear when it's what you have to write about or talk about on live TV until the drama is played out and the next assignment begins.

"Yoohoo. I'll make you famous."

It's just a line from a movie that has become the mantra of anyone with a death wish and access to weapons because once they pull the trigger on others before taking their own lives, they have assured themselves a place in history. Media will jointly gather and disseminate their life stories in news bites. There may never be a book but more words will be devoted to the name and face of evil than would ever be published in one, anyway. The crime will be replayed in live debates and in columns about gun control and mental health. Every instance will most likely include the name of Yesterday's Nobody turned Headliner of the Day. The more gruesome the crime, the more media play it will get, and the more Billy the Kid and his legend will spread.

We're doing this wrong, people. There are Christmas gifts siting beneath pretty trees with handmade decorations that will never be opened. There are families and friends and children who are grieving, in shock, and will never be able to understand the why behind the what. There are dead children and so many reasons to cry.

It's their names we need to remember. It's the name of the one looking to become a headline who's name should be banned from the media and forgotten because who wants to copycat the invisible? From Columbine to Sandy Hook and every instance in which mass murders are committed because the shooter is perfectly aware they will become sensational, I ask you to take away the incentive.

Let them be forgotten.


I've started a petition on asking the media to change the general practice of naming those responsible for crimes such as mass shootings. Click here if you are interested in signing it and thank you for reading.