What Is the Media Doing to Mass Shootings?


source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sgoralnick/

On November 25, the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury released its report on the December 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, in Newton, Connecticut. The report concludes — as many had expected or already knew — that Adam Lanza acted alone when he shot and killed his mother at their home before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he shot and killed 26 people and injured two others before turning his gun on himself.

“With the issuance of this report, the investigation is closed,” writes Stephen Sedensky, the state’s attorney. ”The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder twenty-seven people, including twenty children?’”

Sedensky provides the hard but truthful answer: We may never know. The nearly yearlong investigation unearthed a pile of evidence suggesting that the shooter was not necessarily of sound mind, but that’s it. No clear motive, no history of violence, no indication that the shooter, just 20, would commit the most horrific mass shooting of 2012.

Although the report illuminates much of what happened at Sandy Hook, there is still a lot to unpack as we approach the anniversary of the event. The investigation could not answer the obvious question, and as a result, it will hang over every conversation related to the tragedy and the questions that inexorably ensue.

The questions that arise from nearly every conversation about the Sandy Hook tragedy or another mass shooting may be best contextualized with this piece of information: Sandy Hook may have been the site of the worst mass shooting of 2012, but it was just one of seven that year.

In September, a man in Minnesota killed five co-workers, a UPS driver, and injured one more before shooting himself; in August, a U.S. Army veteran shot and killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and injured three more before turning his gun on himself; in July, the shooting at a movie theater in Colorado left 12 dead and 58 wounded; in May, a man killed four people and injured one in a cafe in Washington, killed another during a carjacking, and later turned his gun on himself; and in April, a man killed seven and injured three people in a nursing classroom in California.

In sum, 72 people were killed and 68 injured. From here, the obvious question is why would anyone commit any of these atrocities? But the exploration of (and, if we are lucky, the answer to) this question, however enticing, is largely reserved to the friends and family of those involved, to law enforcement, and to certain mental health professionals.

Why someone would commit one of these acts of violence is of human interest, but there are more productive questions the public and the media can explore in the spirit of social interest.

More productive questions for the public and the media to ask are things like: How can we help those who are affected? How can we help and try to make sure that something similar never happens again?

It is clear that in the wake of every senseless crime, we as a society feel that something broke — or worse, that something is broken – and we should ask ourselves how do we fix it, and how do we make sure it never breaks again? Or, if a mechanism must break from time to time, how can we make it break in the least destructive way possible? (Answer to the rhetorical question, because people may always, on occasion, break: Infrequently, with minimal collateral damage, and with as much support in the mending as possible.)

Clearly something needs doing, but too often it looks like nothing gets done. Constructive questions are rarely asked and never answered to satisfaction, and the conversation doesn’t evolve. Yes, a mass shooting is absolutely a catalyst for a conversation about the Second Amendment — and this will be a long, if not eternal conversation — but we have done nothing for years. America appears to be too afraid of collectivism to have the bravery to pursue the social interest over the individual.

Part of the issue is that the stewards of the conversation surrounding horrific events like Sandy Hook are the media (and we can’t pretend to be anything but the media covering the media, so that’s a little incestuous). News agencies have managed to simultaneously institutionalize hype for tragedies like Sandy Hook.

The media is interested in the tragedy only as much as it can drive the news cycle. We care enough to shout about it when it is 26 children and teachers in Connecticut, we flare our nostrils when it is 13 adults at a government compound in Washington, D.C., and we might not even hear about it if it is five people in Mohawk Valley. Apparently, at a certain point, a mass shooting is simply just not interesting enough to use as a springboard for the exact same conversation.

When the dust settles, it appears as if none of the important issues related to mass shootings has been solved or even given due diligence in the public eye. So far in 2013, 36 people have died and 13 people have been injured in mass shootings. Over the past 30 years, 547 people have died and 476 have been injured, and still we are unable to move forward with even a half-competent solution to what nearly everyone perceives as a problem.

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