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Public editor: Balancing coverage of the suspect and victims of the Colorado shooting

People stand at a memorial for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado July 22, 2012. President Barack Obama travels to Colorado on Sunday to meet families bereaved after a "demonic" gunman went on a shooting rampage at a movie theater in a Denver suburb, killing at least 12 people and wounding 58.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Some families of people killed in the Aurora Colorado theatre shooting have appealed to television networks to stop talking about suspect James Holmes to avoid giving him notoriety. Instead, they have asked that the focus be on the victims.

CNN's Anderson Cooper did just that in his show Monday, calling Mr. Holmes the suspect or accused shooter and telling viewers it was important to remember the victims. He certainly did that in his show, spending most of the show's focus on the stories of the lives taken. Mr. Cooper said: "Obviously my primary role is to report and be a journalist and tell people as much as possible. I think people know that person's name. They certainly know it by now and they've certainly seen the pictures over and over again."

This morning one reader called me to object to The Globe and Mail's use of Mr. Holmes's photo from his arraignment on the front page on Tuesday. "I don't think the Globe is sensational like other papers, but we don't want to see a psychopath on the front page and people who want to glorify themselves," she said.

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It is a point of view that we have heard from readers during the murder trial of Victoria Stafford, the investigation into the slaying of Lin Jun and the trial in Norway of the mass killings.

The argument from readers and from the families in Aurora is that too much exposure to suspects or convicted killers is deeply disturbing and a reminder of a painful incident. Many readers also felt repeated use of images of those murdered is also difficult. Readers also feel that a focus on the suspects feeds into the infamy they might crave or that it could draw out copycats who might be mentally unstable.

I understand the shock and deep pain the families involved in these tragic deaths are going through. And I also understand the need for balance on such stories.

It is very important to keep a prime focus on the victims of crimes to understand the value of the lives taken during such horrible crimes.

But there is also value to the public to our understanding of why these crimes happen and how we might protect society against future incidents. Society needs to understand the motivation and mental state of Mr. Holmes. That was why it was important to show the photograph of him at his arraignment in court showing the cartoon-coloured red hair and the vacant, blank stare. A story in Wednesday's paper by Paul Koring quotes Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, who has written about mass murderers and serial killers. "The guy was against all humanity, he wanted to go down in infamy. It was peculiar to see the defendant nod off and then look pained... It supports my view that he is seriously mentally ill."

Managing editor David Walmsley said the issue is debated by editors. "I wanted to make sure the killer was not the dominant story, but he is one story and we can't escape that. I instructed the team along those lines. If one looks at the page 3 choice of main image on Saturday, I insisted it not be dominated by the alleged gunman. That was a conscious decision. Instead, we placed a dominant image of the movie theatre to ensure we provided a less tabloid approach. I believe that when the accused appeared in court, his demeanour provided context that had been missing through a portion of the weekend. For example, we declined to follow other media outlets suggesting the Joker angle until we could doubly confirm it. Seeing the accused in orange hair does provide context, if not motivation. We must learn from these news events, and the teachings do often come from the story of those who kill."

I agree that the readers needed to see that image and to make up their own mind, but we understand that readers don't need to see those images too often to understand.

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Do you agree or disagree? Please comment below or feel free to email me on this or any other issue at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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