15 February 2008

Ritual Noise

No one I know would deny that gun violence is a problem in America. Just last week, I wrote an entry about how I was running out of things to say about public shooting sprees, and last night, I was reminded of that, because yet again, another black-clad youth with the stereotypical mental health issues once again took a small arsenal of weaponry to a school and once again opened fire on people who had nothing to do with the man's problems. Once again, the media (in which I am a small cog) goes through the familiar dog-and-pony show of running huge pictures of crying people on the front page with chill-inducing banner headlines like "Why Here?" It's indeed awe-inspiring to see how a news organization can scrap everything and come out with an amazingly memorable issue that takes the pulse of a community after a tragedy.
But it's been done.
There are many tragic aspects of these events - but one of the most tragic happens to be the sort of blas̩ I see overtaking people's mindsets when the news first breaks. I'm no better. If the body count is less than three, I don't even bother looking. When the Jonesborough middle school shootings happened in 1997, four people were killed, and the news media ruminated over every angle of the story for days. Now, it might end up on the front page. Maybe Рif there were some good photos. No, the real tragedy of events like this is that massively violent cries for help don't even bother to register anymore. Whenever I hear about events like this, the armor goes right up: where was it, was anyone I know involved, and did I know anyone who might be connected with this. Thankfully, the answer has always been "no."
What do mass shooters really hope to achieve, anyway? Most of them end up taking their lives when their ammo runs low anyway, so why bother even taking someone else with you? If you were really, truly depressed, wouldn't you just kill yourself rather than take out a bunch of strangers? With so many of these types of things happening, it's getting harder and harder to even remember the faces and names of the perpetrators. Next to child molesters, I can think of no one more reviled than someone who shoots up a bunch of random civilians and then takes their own life rather than face the consequences. Maybe it's a stab at immortality, but if you want to be immortal, why don't you write a book, or cure a disease?
As a newsman, news events like this make me sick because it represents the ultimate Catch-22. In order for these stories to be covered, you have to examine the typical angles: the reasons, the shooter, the victims, and the aftermath. In doing so, the line between covering something and sensationalizing something often blurs (if not disappears altogether). People often complain about the media glamorizing events like this, but in this case, our hands are tied. What is to be done? We can't just write a story like "Today, a shooting happened, but we can't tell you where, why, or how many people died, because we don't want to glamorize it." No. If it's sensationalized, it's because blood and death, for lack of a better way to put it, clear issues out of a newsstand faster than anything else (except maybe presidential hanky-panky or hijacked airplanes flying into buildings).
So, in the end, our hands are tied. We in the media don't make up the world we see (at least not the ethical reporters), but instead serve as a mirror for what a culture values and wants to see more about. If blood and gore run on a front page and people lap it up like dogs over a spilled ice cream cone, we can be accused not of sensationalizing a tragedy but for giving into the demands of a fickle and hard-to-reach public. The sonic reverberations from the gunshots in this latest shooting faded more than 24 hours ago. The moral and human implications, however, just began to ring - and you'll see the ripples on the cover of Time, People, Newsweek, and a hundred other magazines and newspapers around the country. If you don't like coverage about the events, my advice is the same advice I would give you in the case of being the target of a real-life shooter: run away, as fast as you can. Failing that, duck, cover and hope for the best.

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