'Just who is Dylann Roof?': Do we really need to know what makes a mass murderer tick?

Jennifer Berry Hawes has an incredibly difficult job. I don't envy her.

Hawes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., is covering the trial of Dylann Roof, who confessed to last year's mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church.

Regular GetReligion readers will recall that we repeatedly have praised Hawes — a former full-time Godbeat pro — for her reporting on the Emanuel AME aftermath. We have used adjectives such as "amazing" and "powerful" to describe her stories. 

But I can't say that I "enjoyed" her front-page Sunday story on Roof:

In the story, Hawes delves into this question:

Just who is Dylann Roof?

My immediate thought: Do we really want to know?

Of course, the journalist in me recognizes that such stories are necessary and important. But there's a part of me that would be happy never to see Roof's name in print again. Or hear it on the TV news.

In a post on a different shooting rampage last year, I wrote:

Personally, I tire of reading about crazed killers who go on shooting rampages. I understand why some victims' relatives wish the media would stop naming mass murderers and making them infamous. At the same time, I identify with the strong arguments for naming the shooter and reporting responsibly on his crimes.

Undoubtedly, my own journalistic experience writing about horrible crimes influences my reaction to such stories. In my 26 years as a full-time reporter and editor, I've interviewed a seven-time convicted murderer in Tennessee, witnessed four executions of Oklahoma inmates and covered tragedies ranging from the Oklahoma City bombing to a series of high-profile, gory murders in an affluent suburb.

At some point, I decided I'd had enough and would avoid reporting — and reading — such stories as much as possible. Fortunately, I've reached the point in my career where I can make that choice. In the last few years, I've turned down freelance assignments from major newspapers such as the New York Daily News and the Washington Post because I didn't have the mental energy to delve into the mindset of a murderer. 

Which makes me admire Hawes all the more.

Her time on the Emanuel AME story approaches a year and a half. That has to take a heavy personal toll, but she's obviously committed to her community and her calling as a journalist.

I asked Hawes to share her own thoughts concerning (1) the need for Sunday's story and (2) the personal difficulty of reporting on such evil.

Here's what she told me:

I think it is important to understand Roof's background, mental state and motivations because we cannot prevent something so horrible from occurring again if we don't understand why this one occurred. The victims' families also deserve to know what drove the person who killed their loved ones so that they can have as many of the "whys" answered as possible. The members of Emanuel AME and the broader community, all hit very hard by this tragedy, deserve the same.
Regarding the difficulty, it is hard to delve into something so horrible. I have a son, and the testimony from victim Tywanza Sanders' mother was especially difficult to watch. I just cannot imagine her pain, yet she handled it with such strength. However, as a journalist, my role is to delve into the truth, and readers won't learn that truth if I don't describe Roof and his mindset and motives. Not everyone can be in the courtroom (or wants to be), yet there is tremendous interest in the case. The story you referenced currently is the most popular story on our website, evidence of that interest. Hope that helps!

Yes, that definitely helps. Thank you, Jennifer.

Hawes has an incredibly difficult job. I don't envy her.

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