Media needs to reconsider coverage of mass shootings

This piece appeared in USC’s Daily Trojan on Nov. 13, 2013

The media loves covering Detroit.

For the past few years, Detroit has been a victim of economic failings, inadequate school systems and widespread corruption, all of which made it perfect fodder for national news. All of Detroit’s failings eventually accumulated into the media frenzy surrounding the city’s July 18 filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

So when the media brings Detroit up at any time, many Americans expect to hear stories on crime and financial shortfalls, none of which move the emotional needle too far.

Then there are times when Detroit isn’t in the news when it should be.

According to the Detroit Free Press, a mass shooting took place on Nov. 6 in the back room of a Detroit barbershop. The shooting spree killed three people and wounded six others. Police said the barbershop was known as a place where gambling and dice games occurred.

Unfortunately, the United States is now numb to news of a mass shooting. Within the past few years, the country has amassed a laundry list of shootings. From the Aurora theater massacre to the Sandy Hook tragedy to the Santa Monica College rampage followed by the Washington Navy Yard shooting, people have watched and read the result of mass carnage time and time again. The media is drawn to covering these shootings because they have the elements of a strong news story: impact, human interest, sensationalism and conflict.

Though the FBI defines mass murder as a single incident in which a perpetrator kills four or more people, the media shapes shootings that occur in public venues as mass shootings regardless of the victims killed. On Nov. 1, a sole gunman entered the Los Angeles International Airport and killed Transportation Security Agent Gerardo Hernandez, making Hernandez the first TSA officer to die in the line of duty. Despite the single victim, many outlets such as the Los Angeles Times declared it a mass shooting. In the hours after the shootings, there was wall-to-wall coverage and in-depth analyses of the shooter, his victim, his weapon of choice and his motive. Airports are not the only unusual spot for a mass shooting to occur. Many suburbs around the nation have also experienced mass shootings. Of the 25 deadliest mass 3 in the United States, 19 of them have occurred in suburban settings. Usually after each shooting incident occurs in a school or mall or movie theater or church, there is a person interviewed by the media who says, “Nothing bad was ever supposed to happen here.”

Therefore the lack of coverage of the deadly shooting in Detroit is not a result of the relatively low numbers of people killed and injured in the barbershop; instead, it shows a lack in judgment of what the media considers a tragedy.

The expectation is that gun violence mostly happens in cities, which tends to be true. The mass distribution of New Jack City films and rap music reaffirms the image that gun violence is integral to urban life.

In the same way, however, this expectation for violence poses a challenge to the media. It reshapes the old media adage that says, “What bleeds leads.” Yet if it always bleeds, it begins to lose its sensationalism, conflict and emotional impact because it becomes the expected, the norm.

It is not as if people in the media do not care about the plight of urban dwellers. It’s that they have produced the same images for so long. The Joker from The Dark Knight might describe it best: “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying!” There is no good gun violence, whether it happens in the suburbs or the city. A death at the hands of a gun is always tragic and generally unexpected.

Placing the incidents of gun violence that regularly take place in cities such as Detroit to the forefront of the national discussion, Americans must be shaken out of their complacency for these incidents because when people become used to incidents of violence in certain cities and venues, a shooting in an elementary school or airport won’t seem as uncommon. Then people seeking to gain infamy for inflicting harm will just search for a new public space in which to open fire.

Forgetting about the murders that occur in urban settings makes us numb to other mass shootings to come. When that occurs, the media will not be able to fully analyze and cover our country’s problem with gun violence.

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