Aurora theater shooting
Colorado has shaped the public’s language for shootings
In the moments after a shooting that critically injured a woman — who has since died — terrified workers running out of their offices employed a term unsettlingly familiar to us, despite its relative youth.
From our story Tuesday: “Jordyn Peters said she was walking past the Tattered Cover across from the Alliance Building when people came running out of the building, saying, ‘There’s an active shooter! Run! Run!’ So she ran.”
Immediately we are concerned and grieving for the victim; we wonder about her relationship to her attacker — they had been married — and we experience that terrible relief that it was not 10 or 20 victims. Or more.
Because when someone runs out of a building shouting about an active shooter, that’s what we imagine.
The New York Times Magazine had a piece this weekend about the term “active shooter.” It’s a term we all know, and it serves its purpose with terrifying economy. It also has its roots as part of the public lexicon in Colorado, and possibly in The Denver Post.
In an interview with The Denver Post a few days [after the Columbine shooting], Larry Glick, then the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, described the attack as involving “active shooters” — phrasing that acknowledged a new philosophy among law-enforcement agencies on how to handle armed standoffs. Previously, SWAT teams’ preparation for Columbine-style episodes “was very ad hoc,” says Stuart Cameron, the chief of the Suffolk County Police Department in New York and an authority on active shooters. And it largely failed to account for the possibility of an assailant who simply wanted to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible.
The Times piece is a brief account of the way our understanding of mass shootings, and how violence itself, has changed with our media environment.
But that’s only part of the way Colorado has been part of the evolution of our collective language for mass-shooting events.
Monday, the Associated Press published a story on the issues raised by FBI Director James Comey announcing he won’t use the Orlando night club shooter’s name.
Comey’s pronouncement reflects a change in how federal officials discuss terrorism cases, and it opened the door to questions about whether the intense focus on terrorists since 9/11 has unintentionally glorified them.
Colorado journalists are familiar with that line of thinking, and those who advocate for it.
In 2013, The Denver Post’s Dana Coffield wrote an editor’s note responding to readers who didn’t want the Post to repeat the Aurora theater shooter’s name or run his photograph. She explained why, in the course of the “grim duty” of covering that shooter’s trial and others, they do use murderers’ names and images.
That conversation about avoiding both potential trauma inflicted by invoking killers’ names and increased incentive for twisted fame-seekers has been a long and difficult one. And politicians and elected officials play by different rules than do journalists.
The Aurora Sentinel’s Dave Perry wrote on the same issue, responding publicly and thoughtfully to the parents of a man who was shot and killed in the Aurora theater shooting. They’d started No Notoriety, an organization whose goal is to get media outlets to quit naming killers, “thereby depriving violent like minded individuals the media celebrity and media spotlight they so crave.”
Ultimately, Perry wrote, “To explain this odyssey accurately, fairly and truthfully, as best we can, we have to be clear and unfettered.”
Back to the Associated Press for a moment on that:
There’s little research to suggest that withholding names thwarts copycats. Marc Sageman, a psychologist and a longtime government consultant, said Comey’s move seemed more political than a strategy aimed at preventing violence.
No Notoriety, meanwhile, has grown to claim support from victims of nine different mass shootings — and were cited in press around Comey announcing he wouldn’t say the Orlando shooter’s name, making another national, Colorado-born impact on the way we all think and talk about a kind of tragedy we know all too well.