How The New York Times Covers Mass Shootings

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When an armed man killed eight people, including six of Asian descent, in the Atlanta area on March 16, Marc Lacey and numerous other journalists across The New York Times went into “mass shooting mode.”

An assistant managing editor, Mr. Lacey oversees live news coverage for The Times. He’s also a former editor of the National desk and has more than a decade of experience directing journalists after events like this.

“It’s really kind of sad that we should have a mass shooting mode,” he said. “But they happen with such regularity that you kind of have to know exactly what you’re going to do.”

After a year without a single large-scale shooting in a public place, the country recorded yet another within six days when a gunman killed 10 people in Boulder, Colo., on Monday. In covering these tragedies, Times reporters and editors weigh extremely delicate issues like what information to publish and when, how to sensitively approach grieving family members and how to put the event in context for a national audience.

As Mr. Lacey’s successor, Jia Lynn Yang, mobilized national correspondents to cover the Boulder shooting this week, Mr. Lacey shared in an edited interview how The Times approaches those issues, and how its coverage of mass shootings has changed in the past 10 years.

How does The Times decide when to identify a suspect in a mass shooting?

We publish the names when they’re confirmed by the authorities. We don’t always publish the photo of the perpetrator or suspect. There’s considerable research that shows that those who commit mass shootings thoroughly research past mass shootings — some people call it the Columbine Effect. These young men become obsessed with looking at all the coverage and images of previous gunmen, and want to seek similar, in their minds, glory, by committing their own heinous acts.

If you do publish a photo of a suspect, what do you consider?

We shy away from publishing images in which the gunman is brandishing weapons, because that sort of imagery is exactly what the suspect wants to get out there — they often leave these images on social media feeds for that very purpose.

When do you publish the names of victims?

The only way we would publish a victim’s name before the authorities is if the family themselves publicized the name and we had confirmed it. The authorities are very careful about notifying next of kin before releasing names, and we certainly don’t want anyone to find out their relative died in a mass shooting by reading The New York Times.

Do you ever quote, paraphrase or link to shooters’ manifestoes?

We want to balance informing readers with not glorifying these awful acts in any way. So you’ll see The Times identifying the suspect, but certainly not publishing the twisted manifestoes in which they denounce the world and give their twisted rationale for carrying out the attack.

How do you make sure the information you’re providing about the suspect is accurate?

We’re trying to find out as much as we can about the suspect, so we’re approaching everyone who might have crossed paths with the person. And we have to be very careful: Just because the next-door neighbor says the person was quiet and seemed like a nice guy does not mean that the person was quiet and was a nice guy. We supplement those interviews with a thorough examination of public records.

What are the areas of special sensitivity when dealing with victims’ families?

We want to give readers a sense of the human tragedy of the event, so that means calling up loved ones of that person. Making that phone call is never pleasant, but it’s remarkable how often relatives are eager to talk about their loved one and give the public a sense of who that person was after they died in such tragic circumstances. On the other hand, understand that the person is full of grief and may not want to talk to you.

How has the way The Times covers mass shootings changed over the last 10 years?

Nowadays, with our live briefings, we’re jumping on events much more quickly. Stories that we used to write on Day 2 or Day 3 after a mass shooting, we’re now writing on Day 1. This means we have to be extremely careful about double-checking every fact — just because a police officer says something in a news conference doesn’t make it true. For example, one of the names of the victims in the Boulder shooting that was released by the police was misspelled and later corrected. It’s important to realize that there is great confusion among the officers who are responding to events, and that the eventual account of what happened will not necessarily match the one given right in the moment.

What is something you have learned in your many years of covering mass shootings?

We should not cover a particular mass shooting as though it’s a singular event. We should cover it as part of an American phenomenon that occurs with regularity, and we should try to understand why there are so many of these shootings occurring.