When I woke up this morning, the obvious story dominating my Google Reader was, of course, the shootings at the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Colorado.
After reading the very first story, I cringed a little inside. Working at a newspaper brings a different perspective to many different activities, none more so than major news events. That was a) a big event, b) one likely to go national, and c) covered by a paper also under the umbrella of the same company I am meant that I very likely would have to go into the guts of this story.
To me, that meant having to see the photos of grieving family members over and over, trying to determine which was most “newsworthy” — as if the grief of one was some how more important, or valuable, than another. It meant having to sort through the inevitable deluge of stories about the attacks, about the emergency response, about the response around the country (I almost guarantee you every single newspaper and most TV stations sent a reporter out to a movie theater to find out what moviegoers were thinking, praying for something deeper than, “Well, that sucks. I’mma go watch a movie.”), about whatever morsels could be found (or invented) about the shooter … and then the reactions to those very stories, literally ad nauseum.
(A very special “get a life” is reserved for the Colorado tea party, which took the time to be stupidly qualified in its outrage about an erroneous report mistakenly linking to the shooter to the group. It’s fine to be pissed off, but to be angry because ABC “made no effort to contact our organization” is stupid because the tea party claims to have no organizational structure so it’s nearly impossible to know whether he was affiliated; the tea party would have immediately disavowed the claim even if he was the group’s president (as would any group) based on the “no true Scotsman” fallacy; absolutely no one (save them) thinks it was done in anything other than simple error, so to call it “shameless and reprehensible” is a bit much.)
But what I would wade through is not what made me wince when I thought about what was coming. The primary problem with these types of tragedies (other than their very existence) is the kind of coverage the media gives them, which I think largely serves to do two things: Bring in pageviews/viewers/readers, and glorify the perpetrators.
1) Stop nationalizing stories
I don’t know where the impetus to hyper-nationalize stories comes from; the news media does it, yes, but so do politicians (both Obama and Romney put out statements that they were, like, super sad about the shooting and think that stuff like that is bad) and others in the national spotlight. Maybe it’s the delusional omnilocational intimacy of the internet, I don’t know. But just because something is really tragic does not necessarily mean it’s a national tragedy.
This is not to undercut the scope and scale of tragedies that occur, but to better understand who they actually impact.
Sept. 11 was a national tragedy. It was clearly an attack on a nationality basis, and therefore was an event that, though confined to the East Coast, had a lasting and influential national impact. Even people who weren’t there remember where they were when they heard about it; anyone who’s flown on a plane since then can see the vast, direct impact it had on their lives; anyone who pays taxes, anyone who’s served in the military … The list is virtually endless.
Virginia Tech, by contrast? HUGE national headlines. Weeks of stories. Comments from Obama. All three evening broadcast news anchors descended on the campus. Newspapers in countries around the world put the massacre on the front page.
Yes, 33 people died. Yes, the shootings were appalling. But international front pages? It seems a bit much. And it only gives more reason for mentally deranged individuals in the future to continue to perpetuate such acts. (More on this below.)
I have no problem mentioning that a shooting occurred. I have no problem running it as a main bar, with a photo or two, on the front page of the national news section, or dedicating 5 minutes to it on the evening news. But as there’s never enough actual information to justify going to round-the-clock coverage, we’re instead treated to talking heads spouting nonsense (great explanation from The Atlantic), which really isn’t good for anyone.
2) Stop focusing on the perpetrators
Every single shooting, bombing or other incident has happened for one reason: Those bastards were crazy.
I don’t understand why we go any deeper than this. Maybe it made a little bit of sense after Columbine, the first “big” school shooting, to go back and examine teen culture and figure out how such tragedies might be preventable in the future. But we obsess over every little detail. It’s not even about the rush to blame video games, or movies, or whatever the current pop-cultural demon is. It’s about the urge to dig into every possible aspect of this person’s life, trying to find THE THING that caused him or her (almost always him) to do it.
At what other point would you ask a crazy person why they committed a crazy act? Do you regularly traverse mental hospitals and give credence to the reasoning patients give as to why they build sculptures with their fecal matter? Or do you simply think, “that person needs serious help and we should definitely not give positive feedback to their delusions” and just avoid ice cream for a few weeks?
Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned in every shooting: Take threats seriously, try to prevent bullying/ostracizing, those kinds of things. But on the whole, the (often postmortem) vetting that occurs serves only to give more airtime to/further spread whatever misguided message the person was attempting to disseminate. This was especially true when NBC aired that package of materials sent to them by the Virginia Tech shooter. Who the hell cares what misguided cause the person thought he was fighting for?
Think of it this way: What are the possible reactions of any given person if they know the killer’s motivations?
1) Not caring
2) Being against the mission
3) Being for the mission
Off the bat, there’s only a 33% chance of a positive (that is, being against whatever cause condones such acts) response regardless of the actual specifics of the mission. And even that’s probably not a very significant impact, given that any cause that would condone such actions is probably something the vast majority people were going to be against anyway. Unless this extended dwelling upon a killer’s motivations somehow allows to finally crack the code of what makes crazy crazy, there’s no actual reason to care/publicize/explore what made the killer tick aside from pure morbid curiosity. There’s a far better chance of negative consequences in the form of copycats or converts to an ignoble cause.
3) Slow down
I don’t know if I necessarily want to advocate the slow-news movement, but I think it’s pretty clear we’re completely out of control as a society in regard to how we consume information. We prize the immediacy of information, mocking those who actually try to verify information, then go right ahead and pillory those who focus on getting the information to you NOW.
This is more of a pie-in-the-sky dream, but I wish people could just step back and realize that news, though important in the larger scheme of things, doesn’t really affect them at all on a minute-to-minute basis. I thought along similar lines when CNN misreported the outcome of the Supreme Court health care case — yes, the case obviously will have lots of impact, but absolutely zero more than if they had waited 10 minutes or an hour to actually digest the opinion and realize what it said.
There was only really one example of reporting erroneous information in the interests of speed in this case, but there’s the larger issue of sitting back and deciding whether the story should be written and what should be covered based on where you are. Obviously the Denver Post should go all-out on trying to figure out what happened and provide that information to its readers. The rest of us, though, would likely do better to sit back and figure out how the story will actually impact anyone in our community — and, when theaters decide to restrict costumes and such from future Friday-night showings, report on how absurd and pathetically useless* such actions truly are.
Again, this one’s more of a fervent wish than anything, so I don’t really have any concrete suggestions here. To newsrooms, I would just say calm down and make sure you actually have time to report the whole story (and make sure the story’s worth reporting) before you go all cuckoo-bananas trying to be first to report it.
*This is a wonderful example of security theater, in that anyone who really wants to break into a theater and shoot people is going to be able do so whether they’re dressed as Batman or Thor or whomever. The costume restriction is just going to hurt the fans.