Roundtable – Shootings and the Media Response

The Roundtable is a conversation about the news among Torchlight’s writers and editors. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and some citations and links were added after the fact. The conversation happened June 17.

 

Tom Rich

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. With us this week are Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Politics Editor Christopher Dahlin, Junior Managing Editor David Schmitz, contributing writer David Spitzley, and Editor-in-Chief Tom Rich. Our topic this week is the shooting at a baseball practice for the Republican team ahead of the annual Congressional baseball game. Before we get started with our conversation, though, we would like to join the rest of the civilized world in condemning political violence, and wishing those injured in the attack a speedy and full recovery. We would also like to note that the investigation into the shooting is ongoing, so additional facts may come to light after this conversation. My question for the team to start us out: what is the appropriate media response to acts like this, and how well did coverage live up to that ideal this week?

 

David Schmitz

For me, I seem to see an endless stream of “If the perpetrator is this, then it means this” from pundits and that just drives me crazy. When nothing is known about motive or mental state, our media just immediately starts with jumping to conclusions. It should be more along the lines of “There has been an incident, here are the facts as we know them, when more information is available we will provide it to you”.

 

Christopher Dahlin

The media response had some good points and bad points, but overall was better than usual.  Despite the seriousness of the target, there didn’t seem to be a massive amount of fear mongering.

The unfortunate part is, as David mentioned, focusing on the partisanship aspect.  We don’t know why the shooter was there.  We don’t know his exact political leanings.  The whole focus on this is a little… exploitative.

 

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

This shooting is a little different because the targets were Congressional representatives, but I think in general we either need more coverage of our mass shootings (so that people actually care) or much less (so that terror stops working). Did you guys know there was a second mass shooting the same day as Alexandria?

 

Tom

Two important points there; we’ll swing back to the degree of coverage in a moment. Dave and Chris, you both touched a little on the particular details the media chose to present about the Alexandria shooter. It came out fairly early on that he had volunteered for the Bernie Sanders campaign, for example, and that fact got wide coverage. How do you think the media should balance the need to tell us who this shooter is with the need not to push bad narratives, give out irrelevant information, and so on? How should they decide which details to report, and when to report them.

 

Chris

It doesn’t matter who the shooter is.  We are not investigators, and not involved.   The morbid picking through history is going to get worse though, so I don’t know the solution

 

David Schmitz

The huge problem with labeling a perpetrator of crime with any other label than the label “perpetrator of this particular crime” is that you risk painting large swaths of people who had absolutely nothing to do with or in common with that person with a brush that is wholly unfair and dangerous.

 

Josh

I’ve come around to the idea that, for a few reasons, we shouldn’t really go into the shooter’s details at all. First, by not naming them or describing their ideology, we refrain from glorifying the act. (Killing people should not be a means to fame; we should remove that incentive.) Second, until we decide to do something with this information as a country it just gets thrown into the conversation in the broadest possible terms. We make nothing useful out of this stuff, so we should just stop.

I was going to say we should report mass shooters the way we report on hurricanes, but actually it works the other way around, we name hurricanes so it makes for a more dramatic story. But in general there’s a soberness that’s missing from these and many other media events, and that’s frustrating.

 

Chris

There is also the factor of that information being used for personal gain of some factions.  That broad brush is used on purpose, and sometimes explicitly for the benefit of some party or group.  Frankly, I don’t think we should be dwelling on the shooter at all.

 

David Spitzley

Here’s the problem:  aside from the personal tragedies involved, the main reason these shootings are discussed and analyzed in the media is the question of “how do we stop this happening over and over again?” We don’t seem to have options to offer except a) confiscate all the guns, or b) expand mental health services, so the repeated discussions just go around and around until partisan blame is the only thing left to chew over.

In other words, we give shootings too much coverage because we don’t know how else to respond.

 

Josh

I think that’s a smaller reason than the one you set aside; that shootings are “perfect” for 24-hour cable news networks. Simple, violent, scary, pointless for the vast majority of the country, and offers a plethora of details (especially now when the news can milk revelations from the shooter’s social media history) so that every fifteen minutes Wolf Blitzer can say, “If you’re just tuning in, people have been shot, here’s what we know.” News is as much of a business as Hollywood, and their version of superhero movies dominating the marketplace is blood, blood, blood.

 

Chris

[The movie Nightcrawler] is a criticism of news media for a reason. As in “if it bleeds, it leads.”

 

David Spitzley

That could be said for every single murder case in the country.  Why do these get differential coverage?

 

Tom

From a “the media needs drama to get ratings” standpoint, a mass shooting generally has more they can play with – video of cops running around, choppers overhead, bodycounts, and so on. Your average murder doesn’t have all of that going on.

 

David Spitzley

But there are still plenty of one-on-one shootings in public which barely get local coverage, much less Wall-to-Wall multiday coverage.

 

Josh

Most murders are not actually random. Serial killings and mass shootings are popular entertainment (or if you prefer, much more frightening) because any individual can imagine themselves a victim for no reason at all.

 

David Spitzley

Which comes back to my point – the coverage is ultimately motivated by the question of how to drive off this plague before it hits “us” in the broader sense. Blood is blood, it’s fear that sells these stories.

 

David Schmitz

You mentioned that the coverage offers gun control and mental health improvements as options for reducing the likelihood of these sorts of events from occurring. Those are the demonstrable actions that can actually help, and yet we have a devolvement of discourse in this country that both supports these actions in public polling and denies them from being implemented in policy.

 

Chris

That issue as also completely separate from the actual issues involved with the story, and the actual solutions.  The popular talking points generally have nothing to do with what is actually going on. Because actually tackling issues is a lot more difficult than hysterically screaming.

 

Tom

Fear drives people to certain kinds of coverage; the networks put out that kind of coverage because they know scared people will be driven to watch it. Sounds like the two drive one another, and miss the bigger point altogether.

 

Chris

As an example, a big issue is that a man convicted of domestic assault was able to get a gun.  That shouldn’t happen, but that’s not even part of the conversation. [The shooter was arrested for domestic assault, but not convicted. We discuss this below – ed.]

 

Josh

I think this rings very true to me, as depressing as it is to say:

At this point, why even cover these stories like this? News is supposed to have a point, it’s supposed to give people information they need. But it doesn’t affect my life if some people are shot a few states over, unless as a country we change our policies to address the problem. Which we won’t, so we should just stop giving these stories this overwhelming coverage.

 

Tom

I think in this specific case there’s value to reporting “some of our national elected representatives were shot” as a national story (though perhaps not a wall-to-wall coverage story), but in general I agree: if I’m not in the immediate vicinity of a mass shooting, I probably don’t need to know about it instantly, and at length.

 

David Spitzley 

I believe [the shooter] was not convicted [of domestic assault], just arrested.

 

Chris

Charlie Brooker’s piece on shootings comes to mind.

 

Josh 

[The perpetrator being reported as convicted of domestic assault, rather than just arrested] is the kind of thing that happens in these stories–details come out and people just jump on them when they match their preconceptions.

 

David Schmitz

Yep, I was going to point that out and how that is illustrative of the problem with reporting via conclusion jumping!

 

Josh

The same thing happened here with the witness report of the man who, just before the shooting, asked whether the baseball players were Democrats or Republicans. That was later confirmed to be the shooter, but that morning while there was still a lot of doubt and confusion about who had asked that, it seemed like everybody just decided to assume it was true and call this a politically motivated shooting.

 

Tom

There’s a problem here, too, where even if you report it accurately as “somebody said something, not sure if it was the shooter or not,” that nuance doesn’t easily survive contact with the public. There’s virtually no way to report speculation or uncertainty without putting bad information out there. You could say it’s the readers’ and viewers’ responsibility to filter that, but they’re not always going to be as careful as they should be.

We’re just about out of time here, everyone. Final quick thoughts on the media’s coverage of these tragic events?

 

Josh 

I want to jump back to Tom’s point about how these shootings are over-covered for anyone who isn’t in the immediate vicinity. This goes back to my earlier frustration. All of these things really do matter, because it matters when a human being is hurt or killed; but that empathetic impulse is somehow being short-circuited by the endless, mindless discussion. We talk and talk and talk and at the end of all that talking we’re somehow ready to move on, having done nothing. Through frantic action, the national ego defends itself against change.

 

David Schmitz

As with so many things in our society, the evil comes down to profit motive. We live in a world where that motive also is a driver of innovation and can lead to great things happening, but the cost for that is pretty high when we can’t provide adequate health care to our citizens without bankrupting them or offer news coverage without trying to suck as much advertising dollars from having such salacious coverage to boost ratings.

 

David Spitzley

Are we discussing this to make a buck?  There is a valid reason for covering random shootings, which is one of epidemiology.  The problem is we can’t seem to find solutions that are both practical and in the realm of the politically feasible.  As a result we keep covering each new one the way we did the last one, because nothing more productive seems possible and silence seems both inappropriate and (back to the earlier point) a waste of potential newshole fill.

 

Tom

Love of money and it’s relationship to the root of all evil is certainly a factor here, but beyond our time for today. Thanks as always, everyone, for a lively discussion.

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