At the start of October, America witnessed yet another tragedy of immense scope: the Las Vegas shooting that killed over 50 people and injured hundreds more. It didn’t take long for the perpetrator to be identified as a man named Stephen Paddock. Shortly after the shooting, he reportedly took his own life upon being cornered by law enforcement.
The media, as usual, rewarded Paddock for his actions with a series of detailed, eloquent miniature biographies.
Washington Post devoted an article to his upbringing and “professional [gambling]” career. Huffington Post gave us such interesting and useful trivia as the fact that he “owned two airplanes and had a private pilot’s license.” These articles and many others allude to statements by Paddock’s brother, Eric, that the shooting left their family “dumbfounded.”
Media profiles of violent criminals have been a standard for a long time, and they are often far more complimentary than you’d think, especially when dealing with white males. It was done after Dylann Roof killed nine churchgoers in 2015, it was done when James Harris Jackson impaled Timothy Caughman on a sword, and it’s been so normalized that it will most likely continue long into the future of journalism. But normalized though it might be, we need to stop working so hard to publicize the histories of these killers in such detail, especially when it has little to no contextual relevance.
When major crimes happen, there are facts that I can totally understand looking into: the criminal’s name, how they executed the crime, and so on. Some personal information might be relevant in a courtroom or psych evaluation, or to the police. But do I really need to know that Stephen Paddock had a pilot’s license?
I’m not against humanizing criminals, necessarily. However, when these articles focus so heavily on statements from friends and family reaffirming how unexpected the crime was and how, to everyone else’s knowledge, the perpetrator was actually a wonderful person, it feels like excuses are being made.
When lives are lost, asking those grieving to educate themselves on the lives of the killer(s) is disrespectful. There’s never a good time for that. It also severely downplays the impact of the crimes.
On the subject of friends and family, though, there’s a whole other side to this. Imagine a relative or close friend of yours, out of nowhere, is announced on television as having shot and killed 50 people. That same day, that friend-turned-mass-murderer dies by suicide, altercation with police, or something of that nature.
I don’t think anyone knows how they’ll feel in that situation until they experience it. But I can guess that the best thing for you is not to have media suddenly swarming your home, asking for details about your personal relationship with somebody who you are never going to able to hash things out with.
Pressuring the friends and family of the perpetrator to be sources for you, for the sake of an article that ultimately is not helping anybody, is incredibly immoral. Give them time to sort their emotions out properly. They don’t owe the press explanations for anything.
The fact that we research and release the pasts of criminals so consistently shows that, if nothing else, people are interested in knowing these things. But the chance to publish a hot-button article is not worth the problems it causes in this case. We should be more respectful of those affected directly by lethal crime, and that means letting criminals face the music without cushions in the court of public opinion.