On December 2, the list of people killed in mass shootings grew by fifteen— shooters killed fourteen in San Bernardino, California and one in Savannah, Georgia, in unrelated events. In one day, the perpetrators added deaths to a calendar year already blemished with the shootings in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Roseburg, Oregon; and Charleston, South Carolina.
The endless tally keeps growing— with 355 mass shootings in the past year— up from the 281 incidents in 2014. With each shooting, another horrible mass of deaths, there is another headline. We have all heard about it, we know it happened and we react with the same disgust and grief each time, as we turn to one another to say, “it’s terrible” or “our prayers are with the families.”
Yet, despite national awareness— or perhaps because of it— we run the risk of accepting such events as fact rather than seeking a solution. As twenty-first century journalists deliver news instantly to the masses, it’s worth asking: is the U.S. moving toward a trend of increased shootings or are we just more aware of mass shootings when they occur? The answer is both, but it’s not that simple.
As national news publications move toward reporting in ‘real time’ and social media platforms adopt breaking news features, internet users consume news faster and in greater amounts than ever before. Social media has wrought indefinite change throughout our culture and many have questioned the ability of fast-paced journalism to inform objectively. What effect does the sheer volume of ‘news’ in this digital age have on our perception of its content? Is it excessive? More specifically, does the manner in which the news is delivered affect our understanding of it?
It’s a fair question to ask if the more we read these horrible headlines, the less we react, and the more disillusioned, cynical, and disheartened we are. And if we do take action, we risk acting according to our irrational fears.
Sociologically, we depend on the news to inform us, to give us insight on a topic that might not otherwise affect us in daily life. While we all likely believe that we read news with our own pure intentions, and can therefore readily distinguish objective reporting from biased news, it’s easy to read news to fulfill our own personal purposes. In the atmosphere of fear that has engulfed the country, many act impulsively and reach for their deeply-rooted opinions, seeking out publications to affirm their beliefs.
As readers, because we cannot read all the news that is published, our perception of reality lies in what the news feeds us— we do not know about what isn’t covered, and our understanding of a general trend may be lacking, especially if there is an imbalance in coverage. With this model in mind, when we equate coverage with reality, that reality may become distorted. It is important as readers to be sensitive to the fact that just because we did not immediately read about it, does not mean it did not happen.
On that same Wednesday, however, another mass shooting occurred in Savannah that took injured three and killed one, yet this event only received limited coverage. Of course, the latter shooting did not involve nearly as many victims, yet it is worth asking if the coverage of one crowded out the other.
A similar incident occurred following the November Paris shootings and Beirut bombing, when people claimed that the latter did not receive nearly as much coverage nor support as the former. Many claimed that among other things, the mass violence and carnage in Paris was more unexpected and unusual, in comparison to Beirut, and therefore, garnered more interest from the public. Granted, the November shooting in Paris was the largest mass killing in Paris since WWII, but disregarding the bombing in Beirut as secondary news simply because it could be accepted as a more ‘normal’ news event for the city is both sickening and flatly wrong.
With this model in mind, when we equate coverage with reality, that reality may become distorted.
We must also be careful not to turn the shooters into nationally-recognized names, and inspire other like-minded individuals to strive for the same recognition. Newsweek reported on a group of researchers who have used a statistical model of contagion typically used for disease to describe the epidemic of shootings currently plaguing the nation. The study also attributes the inspiration for these shootings to media coverage, with a direct proportion between how much attention the shooting got and the level of ‘contagion.’
According to the F.B.I., a mass shooting is a single incident in which more than four people are murdered. According to National Public Radio (NPR), there were 281 mass shootings nationwide last year, only 80 percent of the total this year so far. Sociologists and criminologists agree that the last few decades have seen a definite increase in shootings. The New York Times reported that the idea of mass murder first became prevalent in the late 1960s, following Charles Whitman’s shooting in Austin, Texas in 1966. Despite a lack of consensus between reports about the definition of a shooting, social scientists agree that the number of shootings a year since the 1970s has grown and is on track to increase further. It’s impossible to ignore these statistics; President Barack Obama identifies there is “a pattern now of mass shooting in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”
The deep political and national divide regarding gun ownership has consumed the country in an American identity crisis. Many citizens who buy guns claim they are honoring their right to bear arms and ‘protect’ themselves—one that is albeit based on an amendment written hundreds of years ago— adding to the sheer number of firearms already in public hands. With the recent allowance of people on national terrorism watch lists to obtain guns, our legislation has shown us that we are intent on adding more guns and allowing more access, two factors that enable mass shootings in the first place.
Rather than assert racist and inhumane claims about Muslim terrorists coming to the United States—a sentiment that rings eerily of Nazi Fascism—or give in to blanket statements about all mass shootings, we should prevent guns from getting into the hands of violent individuals; one cannot easily change someone’s ideology, but one can control the extent to which they can carry out its violent ends.
To a certain extent, our media dictates our reality and thus it is crucial that we take care to provide objective context, unbiased data, and that we present serious events with serious reporting. Lopsided news is not necessarily true news, and understanding complex current events takes a patience we often don’t have for ‘instant’ reporting.
It is imperative that we not allow the constant stream of media on gun control to discourage us from seeking change. We cannot deceive ourselves into thinking that our country’s situation is normal—it’s not. Let us use our frustration to combat the increase in violence and let our anger, founded on these terrible headlines, be the impetus for creating a safer country.