We in the media love nicknames for notorious people. Often, these names are associated with a place or thing that has a random connection, like The Boston Strangler, The Green River Killer or The San Bernardino Shooters.
This time it’s “The Facebook killer,” the shorthand description for the actions of Steve Stephens, who killed an elderly Cleveland man at random, then posted the video to his Facebook account. A quick search shows dozens of stories about the crime that use the term.
And no wonder. Handy monikers are even more convenient today than they were decades ago, given the demands of search and social media.
However, there are two important core values that journalists can lean on when looking for reasons to resist, or at the very least, minimize the use of hackneyed nicknames when talking about notorious killers.
Accuracy: Often, the word that gets associated with a notorious crime is one of coincidence or circumstance, rather than a causal relationship. The more accurate descriptive for the Boston Strangler, who killed and raped up to 13 women between 1962 and 1964, would have be the Boston Area Strangler. But that didn’t have the same ring to it.
Just five of the 48 women associated with the Green River Killer were found near the Green River in Washington State.
And the person that Stephens recorded himself shooting was Robert Godwin, Sr. an elderly man he didn’t know. Reducing those details to a clickworthy moniker is a disservice to the audience.
Minimizing harm: Journalists mostly agree on their obligation to minimize harm where possible. Linking a place to a crime causes harm. It may be easier to muster sympathy for the people of San Bernardino or the kids who attend Columbine High School than it is feel sympathy for Facebook. But the principle is the same.
There is greater harm in the possibility of contagion. Researchers believe that when the media give a nickname to a mass shooter, they increase the likelihood of copy cats. The same is true of irresponsible coverage of suicides.
In a competitive environment, newsrooms may be tempted to ignore their small complicity in this phenomenon. But if you take your ethical responsibilities seriously, you’ll search for alternatives. You can describe Stevens as “the man who posted a random killing on Facebook.” Even in a headline, you can say “posted a murder on Facebook.”
Those solutions won’t be as clever or catchy. It will take up more of your 140 characters. And it’s probably too late to change the tide on this story.
But another sensational crime will come along. Language shapes the way we think. And the language we choose to describe significant events will have consequences for how we react to those events. If journalists take their role of informing the public to heart, they’ll be precise and accurate in their choice of words, even under pressure to communicate complicated events in headlines and tweets.