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Why Are Mass Shootings Still Getting Routine Media Coverage?

Instead of stepping up after one of their own was gunned down, the media continues to do the same mass shooting stories over and over. We need to help them do better.

Because we have multiple shootings in the US daily, the media has changed the way they cover them. One to three shot isn't enough any more. Are the journalists numb to less than four dead? No, but now they are acclimated.

The sheer number of shooting changes how the media cover the stories, and not in a good way.

About seven weeks ago, I wrote about how the media covers shootings--how they have become routine. A few journalists wrote stories acknowledging this and the need to do better. But have they? Nope. Instead of digging into how and why gun violence proliferates and what their community is trying to do, they dig into the baby photos from a shooter's apartment.

They aren't questioning the politicians at the state level, they are asking questions of national political characters who offer nothing but "thoughts and prayers" platitudes or who talk like Marvel super villains.

Since the media can't/won't do their job, in the piece below I have suggestions about what you can do.

Personally I'm working on some of these, and I know that my friends in various groups are doing the same, but seeing several of the same "Gun sales increase after mass shooting" stories is just pathetic.

In the one I've included, they could have interviewed a shooting survivor instead of a gun shop owner. Or interviewed a few customers in depth to reveal the hero fantasy mentality of the buyers. An interview might reveal their fear or need for vengeance. Or their courage to face down bad men with guns or their racism. But they don't--and won't-- because that wouldn't be "fair and balanced." Instead we only see the calm, rational gun shop owners gleeful at the chance to make bank on this tragedy.

The media are stuck in a format they are afraid to break.

Because breaking it gets them in trouble. So they lament the problem, but let the public know they can't do anything about it. That's what Bill Goodykoontz of the The Arizona Republic did in his column for USA Today. "Shooting coverage is routine, and that's the story.


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Something has to give. We can’t give up on outrage and heartbreak. Not as media, and not as a society. A story like today’s still has to shock us. It still has to move us.

Russell Frank of Newsweek, reviewed how other media outlets covered the story with Numbing Routine of Responding to Mass Killings"

The coverage has begun to seem generated, as if one could simply key in the facts of a specific case and a software application could spit out the stories without human agency. Far from helping matters, the stories reinforce the sense that we are stuck in a cycle from which there is no escape.

Frank's comment about agency was telling. He pointed at others to do something differently, but he didn't, it would get him in trouble.

Others analyzed it, like James Warren did for The Poynter Institute in his piece Mass murder and the media routine. He quoted Danny Hayes, a George Washington University political scientist who's studied the media and mass shootings.

"There will be calls for gun control, just as there were after the August on-air killing of two journalists in Virginia. And the media will focus on the issue for a few days. But unless political leaders, perhaps spurred by gun control advocates, decide to make a concerted push for policy change, the issue will probably fade from view pretty quickly. It almost always does."

What can be done?

In September I wrote a piece about changing how the media cover shootings following the WDBJ shootings. Following that, I started talking to my friends at States United to Prevent Gun Violence, Media Matters and The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. I also spoke to friends in the print and TV media. I started writing a few more pieces on steps to take to change the media coverage.

My goal was to help activists in each state better prepare for the next shooting the media deemed newsworthy. Then the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon happened.

As I predicted, the first 24 hours following the UCC shootings were focused on what happened. This is what the news is supposed to do.  They worked to get the facts and quotes from authoritative sources about the current situation.  (We also got the now-routine cries of "It's too soon! Don't politicize it!")

As details emerged about who did this, the media started asking why. We got some perfunctory "What can be done?" questions. But now they have a new question: "Why hasn't anything changed since Sandy Hook?"

Then, as Hayes predicted, the story moved off the top of the news. This is the  challenge of pro-public safety activists. Change can be taking place, but it takes time and it isn't exciting.

Meanwhile, other shootings happen in different states and people want to know, "Are our leaders doing anything?" The question goes to national figures because it is a country-wide problem.  But they can't always address what is happening at the state level.  That is the local media's job, because each states' laws are different,  (Find out how your state's gun laws compare to others)

Why wasn't something done?

You would think that the media covering the issue at the state level would be all over the politicians, but as we see above, the media don't want to make news. They will wait until "political leaders, perhaps spurred by gun control advocates, decide to make a concerted push for policy change."

So it's up to the pro-public safety activists to get in front of the media while these changes are taking place and talk about them.

The news runs on conflict, drama and novelty. TV likes action, visual events and celebrities. We have to make the behind the scenes squashing of any reasonable change news. The media need to know of the craven calculations that enable politicians to ignore the deaths of their constitutions.

This isn't the same level of conflict and drama of a shooting, but it  gives the media permission to push other news off the front page.  Look at how the media covers political events. As horse races:

Who is for winning in the race to save lives? Who is losing? Who is blocking change? Who wants change that has the potential to make things worse?

Personally I think that these would make interesting stories for the media, but they usually need a 'news hook' for anything that seems "wonky."  Sadly, new tragic stories of gun violence happen every day. Each of these shootings is a built in news hook for the media to look into what change (or lack of change) is taking place in their own state. This seems like a logical followup story, but logic doesn't have a lot to do with news coverage these days.

Who blocked change, and why?

I'm very keen to have the local media focus on who is blocking change and their reasons. At first I thought that this would be hard to do, to get politicians on the record talking about what they are blocking and their views on gun violence, but then we heard from Ben Carson.

NRA politicians like to say one thing following a tragedy: "Our thoughts and prayers are with you"  Then privately they go back to making the extremists in their base happy. I've often wondered if they would they say those same "pro-guns everywhere" to the shooting survivors and their families? Would they say things that would make them look heartless to the rest of the public?

Would local politicians put their love of the NRA extremists in front of their duty to keep people safe? I think they will--we know that the GOP presidential candidates will--so let's give the state representatives a chance to do so after each and every shooting. 

But each state is different. In some states, the NRA politicians believe a lack of action to improve public health and safety is a winning strategy because it worked in the past. But have they misjudged the majority of their constituency because they only hear from the extremists?

Maybe they will find out that people like Gun Owners for Responsibility Ownership are disgusted in their failure to address the issue? Can the politicians grasp that not everyone who wants change is a "gun grabber?"

The media coverage seems "generated" because they ask the same questions, in the same safe venues to the same people. They don't have time for historical context unless it is handed to them. They can't search in real time during an interview. If you have ever watched Meet the Press, you know that they don't question or correct blatant lies. That's was the job of the Daily Show comedians, who have access to video of what people said about an issue previously. I get it, they are busy and they can't be expected to know the history of everyone who comments about guns. But that history exists, and often the local activists know it. The media need to be reminded of it following the next mass shooting.

The need for a hook, in news and in pop songs

The national media used the Obama visit as a news hook to revisit the UCC story. They did their standard "A says, B says" on the issue, threw up their hands at the "unsolvable" problem, called it controversial and then had to "leave it there."

They do that because they don't want to appear "liberal" --but who they chose from each side to talk with can influence the story.

Did they wade into the crowd and talk to the guy holding the sign who thinks Obama is going to take his guns? That would have been an interesting conversation. Did they then go and talk to the state legislators who consider those people his base?

The national media don't focus on state legislators who block policy change. And since nobody is making news about what they say in private to their NRA buddies there is no one to hold their feet to the fire for rejecting even the most sensible changes supported by the majority of people in their state.

Live! Local! Late Breaking!

I'd like the local media to do this kind of coverage instead of waiting for announcements, but I've found telling the media what they "should do" is fruitless.  We have to create the narrative for them. We have to show them the politicians who don't do anything in the face of mass carnage. They need to hear how they proclaim they have "no choice" or "no power" to change anything.

Lately I've been talking to my friends at Ceasefire Oregon, Nebraskans against Gun ViolenceArizonians for Gun Safety and Newtown Action Alliance.  I've adopted a 50-state strategy because your state could be next.

Here's the deal folks, the media are begging us to do this for them. They really don't want mass shootings to be routine. But they don't know how to break out of their own formats without our help.

By the end of today, the odds are almost 100 percent that someone has died from "routine" gun violence.  Will it launch another round of "routine" gun violence coverage? It doesn't have to, this is a routine we can break.

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