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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 New York Times journalists went into “mass shooting mode.”
As Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Mr. Lacey oversees live coverage for The Times. He is also a past editor of the National Desk and has over a decade of experience directing journalists following such events.
“It’s really sad that we should have a mass shooting mode,” he said. “But they happen so regularly that you have to know exactly what you’re going to do.”
After a year without a single large-scale shooting in a public location, the country recorded another in six days when a gunman killed 10 people on Monday in Boulder, Colorado. In reporting these tragedies, reporters and editors for the Times weigh extremely sensitive questions such as: For example, what information should be published and when, how sensitively grieving family members can be dealt with and how the event can be put into context for a national audience.
When Mr. Lacey’s successor, Jia Lynn Yang, mobilized national correspondents to cover this week’s Boulder shooting, Mr. Lacey shared in an edited interview how The Times is addressing these issues and how coverage of mass shootings is going in has changed over the past 10 years.
How does The Times decide when to identify a suspect in a mass shooting?
We will publish the names when they have been confirmed by the authorities. We don’t always publish the photo of the perpetrator or suspect. There is extensive research showing that those who commit mass shootings are thoroughly investigating past mass shootings – some people call it the Columbine Effect. Obsessed with looking at all of the reports and pictures of previous armed men, these young men want to seek similar fame in their minds by committing their own heinous deeds.
What do you think when you post a photo of a suspect?
We shy away from posting pictures of the shooter wielding guns because those types of pictures are exactly what the suspect wants to get out – they often leave those pictures on social media feeds for this purpose.
When do you publish the names of the victims?
The only way to get a victim’s name out to the authorities is for the family to publish the name themselves and we have confirmed it. Authorities are very careful about notifying next of kin before they post names, and we certainly don’t want anyone reading the New York Times to find out that their relative died in a mass shooting.
Do you ever quote, paraphrase, or link Sagittarius manifestos?
We want to balance the informative readers by not glorifying these horrific acts in any way. So you will see The Times identify the suspect, but certainly not publish the twisted manifestos denouncing the world and giving their twisted reasons for carrying out the attack.
How do you ensure that the information you provide about the suspect is correct?
We are trying to find out as much as we can about the suspect, so we approach anyone who may have crossed with the person. And we have to be very careful: just because the neighbor says the person is calm and seems like a nice guy, it doesn’t mean the person was calm and a nice guy. We complement these interviews with a thorough review of the public records.
What are the areas of particular sensitivity in dealing with the families of the victims?
We want to give readers a taste of the human tragedy of the event. That means we have to call that person’s family members. Talking on the phone is never pleasant, but it is remarkable how often relatives enjoy talking about their loved ones and giving the public a sense of who that person was after passing away in such tragic circumstances. On the other hand, understand that the person is grieving and may not want to speak to you.
How has the way The Times reported on mass shootings changed over the past 10 years?
Nowadays we jump to events much faster with our live briefings. Stories that we wrote on day 2 or day 3 after a mass shooting are now written on day 1. This means we have to be extremely careful in checking every fact – just because a cop says something in a press conference is doing it Is not it. For example, one of the names of the victims of the Boulder shooting, published by the police, was misspelled and later corrected. It is important to understand that there is a great deal of confusion among officials who respond to events, and that the portrayal of what has happened may not exactly match what is currently given.
What have you learned in your many years of experience with mass shootings?
We shouldn’t treat a particular mass shooting as if it were a unique event. We should treat it as part of an American phenomenon that occurs regularly and we should try to understand why so many of these shootings are taking place.