How much do we need to know about domestic terrorists?

January 25, 2021
Mysterious man with hoodie on the black background

Since Anthony Quinn Warner set off the massive Christmas-morning explosion in Nashville, details have emerged about his life and motivations. The same is true of many of those who attacked the US Capitol in early January. 

But should Warner, or those rioters, receive more coverage than the courageous police officers who sought to resist them? Do they deserve any attention at all?

One of Warner’s neighbors recounted that less than a week before the explosion, he had boasted that the world would not forget him. He must have been aware that, in America, crime is a public matter and delivering details about it to the public is a fundamental journalistic obligation. 

But research shows that raising a perpetrator’s profile rewards him with a kind of fame, and can also generate copycat incidents. And across the world, the practice of telling all is far from universal.

Last spring, after twenty-two people were shot and killed in Nova Scotia, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau asked the press not to confer upon the gunman the “gift of infamy.” For the most part, Canadian media chose not to use the shooter’s name, and when they did, they put it low in the story, used it only once, and explained the thinking behind their choices.

In April 2009, in the Netherlands, Karst Tates stole a car and headed toward a parade in the small town of Apeldoorn, where the Dutch royal family was riding in an open-air bus through crowds of well-wishers gathered to celebrate the queen’s birthday, a national holiday. 

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While national and local television cameras rolled and news photographers documented the lighthearted event, Tates rammed the car through police barriers into a crowd of spectators. He killed seven people and seriously injured ten more before plowing into a monument. Tates died the next day of head injuries sustained in that crash, but not before he confessed to police that he had intended to assassinate Queen Beatrix.

Despite the very public spectacle, few people in the Netherlands learned Tates’s name, especially if they relied solely on the coverage provided by the Dutch Press Agency—the ANP, or Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau—which referred to him only as “Karst T.” 

“Most mainstream reputable Dutch media don’t routinely name or identify people charged, or in some cases convicted, of serious crimes,” an ANP editor told me when I was touring their newsroom with students not long after the assassination attempt. 

Why would the Netherlands—a country so seemingly like the United States in many ways—behave so differently in this respect? And what can that difference tell us about why we cover crime as we do?

These questions launched a ten-year exploration in which Romayne Smith Fullerton, a journalism professor at the University of Western Ontario, and I analyzed crime-coverage practices in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. 

We conducted nearly two hundred interviews and used journalists’ decisions about how they covered crime as a lens to examine underlying cultural attitudes regarding concepts like “public,” “private,” “the public’s right to know,” and “justice.” 

Few journalists in any of the countries we studied realized that their counterparts in other nations cover crime differently. Most assumed that their practice was the practice.

The Dutch practice of shielding identity is not required by law, and some websites don’t follow it. But, though it’s not universal, Dutch journalists carefully consider whether naming is in the public interest, and their default is to withhold.

When we asked journalists why they choose to shield, they said they believe it is the ethical thing to do. They offered three values that they weigh. First, they consider the accused person’s family, especially children, who are innocent and could be harmed through naming. Second, journalists note that media coverage can affect the accused’s genuine presumption of innocence. Third, and especially alien to American ears, journalists note that even after conviction, once criminals have paid their debt to society, they should be able to rejoin their communities free of stigma. 

Their policies are built on the notions that anyone can make a mistake and that even convicted criminals deserve a chance for redemption and reintegration into the community. As the head of the Dutch Union of Journalists put it to us, “In Holland, everyone has the right to start again.” 

The main difference between northern Europe and the United States, we concluded, is that in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, citizens and journalists alike largely trust their governments, the police, and the criminal justice process. There is a greater emphasis on avoiding trials-by-media.

Americans, now and historically, have a fundamental skepticism about government and a mistrust of those in authority. Thus, our journalists are watchdogs, keeping a wary eye on government and its institutions. And our deep-seated individualism dictates that people ought to take responsibility for themselves and that citizens need access to enough information to be free and self-governing. 

We put a greater value on transparency. We believe that the best and safest process is one that avoids secret inquisitions or incarcerations. And so journalists name names, chase after details, and follow cases through the courts, because we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. 

While an accused person may ultimately be found not guilty and a stain on their reputation may remain, they and their family members are seen as unavoidable collateral damage. But a greater good is served: the judicial system has imparted its judgment, without fear or favor, and we expect that truth will win out. Justice, we believe, must be seen to be done. 

American journalists told us that when they do their job to the highest standard, the answers to questions about people like Warner reveal tears in the social fabric and give citizens the raw materials they can use for policymaking. But both journalists and citizens know these same details can be—and often are—sought for less noble reasons, like ratings, profit, and prurience. 

The point of our research is not to argue that one approach to covering crime is better or more ethical than another, but rather that a country’s choices are deeply rooted in its values and beliefs that have evolved to mirror ideas about community, individuals, and justice.

But no journalistic practice should be written in stone. And as we enter a new year, it might be worth looking again at our assumptions. 


Maggie Jones Patterson is a professor of journalism at Duquesne University. With Romayne Smith Fullerton, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario, she has written a book, Murder in Our Midst: Comparing the Ethics of Crime Coverage in a Globalized Age, about crime-coverage practices around the world.