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Colorado victims' families urge less usage of Holmes' name

alexteves.jpg

The undated photo provided by the family shows Alex Teves. (AP)

Some relatives of people killed in the Colorado theater shooting are urging television news outlets to resist using alleged killer James Holmes' name and image in their stories for fear it gives him the infamy he craves.

Two families made that specific point to Anderson Cooper on CNN, who said Tuesday he has largely complied. Some news experts, while saying journalists must be attuned to these sensitivities, also warned against losing sight of the chief responsibility to inform the public.

Tom Teves, whose son Alex was among 12 people shot and killed Friday in Aurora, Colo., at a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," challenged TV news divisions during a Monday interview with Cooper.

"I would like to see CNN come out with a policy that said moving forward we're not going to talk about the gunman," Teves said. "What we're going to say is, a coward walked into a movie theater and started shooting people. He's apprehended. The coward's in jail. He will never see the light of day again. Let's move on to the victims. Never talk to him again."

Jordan Ghawi, whose 24-year-old sister Jessica was killed, said he has been talking publicly about her in part because "I don't want the media to be saturated with the shooter's name. The more air time these victims have, the less time that man gets his time on television.

"I can tell you the shooter in Virginia Tech and Norway and not long ago here in Denver," Ghawi told CNN on Friday. "I don't want that to happen here. I want the victims to be remembered rather than just this coward."

Cooper said he didn't use Holmes' name at all while he was on the air Monday, instead using phrases like "suspect," "accused killer" or "accused shooter." He also tried to limit images of Holmes on his show, airing some from the suspect's court appearance Monday about halfway through his hour-long newscast.

He said his show was acting on its own, not from some CNN directive.

"Obviously my primary role is to report and be a journalist and tell people as much as possible," he said. "I think people know that person's name. They certainly know it by now and they've certainly seen the pictures over and over again."

Traveling to Colorado to report on the scene gives journalists a better idea of the community's sensitivity than they might otherwise get, he said.

Certainly there have been instances where TV news organizations hold back, like when there are particularly gruesome pictures or if reporting could threaten a hostage's life. American television networks resisted showing pictures of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and, after the first day of the story, restricted use of video of the airplanes striking the Twin Towers.

But news executives constantly hear from people who don't want disturbing pictures shown, either because they are painful or give undue publicity to people responsible for brutal acts, said Marcy McGinnis, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a longtime former CBS News executive.

"If you follow that, unfortunately, you would basically get to the point where you would never show anything of a tragic nature because it always affects somebody personally," she said. "You can't really make the decision on what to show or not show based on what the people affected are thinking."

Who Holmes is and why he allegedly committed the atrocity is a major part of the story, she said, and digging into this could provide information that someday stops a person from doing something similar.

At the same time, most people were curious about what Holmes looked like when he made his first court appearance on Monday, she said. A larger issue for 24-hour news networks moving forward will be the temptation to use images of Holmes so often they become like video wallpaper, especially because photos of him with dyed hair and wild eyes are so striking.

Cooper said he didn't think it was an either-or situation. "I think you can be sensitive to a community's feelings and still report accurately and with as much detail as anybody else," he said.

He also doesn't want to contribute to increasing Holmes' infamy so copycats might follow.

He's backed in this opinion by James Alan Fox, a professor in criminology at Northeastern University and one of the nation's foremost experts on mass murder. He's in favor of the media not naming these suspects to deny them the notoriety they often seek. While most Americans see these people as monsters, some view them as heroes to emulate.

The media should also stop reaching for the kind of superlatives that a potential killer might seek to one-up by categorizing something as the "biggest, the deadliest, the worst, the first," Fox said. "You know what the problem with that is? Records are there to be broken."

Bill Wheatley, a veteran NBC News executive who now teaches at Columbia University, said that while it is important for networks to be sensitive, he doesn't believe that restricting the use of Holmes' name or picture will have any effect on whether someone does something similar.

He doesn't understand how television can cover a judicial process involving an alleged mass killer and not use the person's picture if it's available.

"Self-censorship can be very dangerous," Wheatley said. "I'm not indicating there aren't times when self-censorship is appropriate, but they should be rare. It's a slippery path, because at some point you find yourself not reporting information that the public deserves to have.

"The line is not always clear," he said.

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