Mass Shootings Are Pervasive And Unpredictable Happenings In America Today. How Will We Respond When It’s Us?
I couldn’t find the tweet I was thinking of that first inspired me to write this column, but it was one that has kept my mind occupied since that push alert popped up on my phone, letting me know America’s most recent school shooting was taking place.
Tweeted out by a small metro television reporter, it wasn’t deeply introspective, nor was it rich in the statistics and data visualization wizardry typically thrown about by most of the big league wordsmiths with offices in New York or Washington. (Or both.) It wasn’t even a great observation really, perhaps overgeneralized and maybe a bit kneejerk in simplifying something few of us could understand in the moment. But it was powerful enough to stick with me, enough so to write something about. It went something like this:
“It’s sad when every journalist will be expected to cover a mass shooting at least once in their careers.”
Statistically, this is unlikely. The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump estimates – after last Wednesday’s shooting in Florida – that approximately 188 school shootings have taken place since 2000, a little more than 10 per year. (This is the most conservative estimate, excluding shootings that have taken place either outside of schools or outside of school hours.) If you wanted to look at raw statistics, any given school in the United States (of which there are close to 93,000) has about one-hundredth a percent of likelihood of experiencing a shooting. You can look at other figures, sure, like the Academy For Critical Incident Analysis’ determination that the United States accounted for half of all multi-instance student homicides in the United States. (More than 200 dead, if you’re keeping score). All considered, we’d say one-hundredth of a percentage point sounds fairly safe.
But for every school (or neighborhood, or concert, or anything) that doesn’t get shot up, a handful will. Probability is funny like that – it doesn’t discriminate.
New York State has had plenty of what we would consider to be “mass shootings.” a 64-year-old man shot six individuals in the Mohawk Valley in 2013, killing five. 14 individuals – including the shooter – were killed at a civic association in Binghamton in a 2009 incident that, until recently, was ranked among the top-ten worst mass shootings in American history. In the early-’90s, Watkins Glen and Garden City, in Long Island, saw numerous dead from shootings that killed five and six individuals, respectively.
Given that the mass shooting seems to be a wholly American tradition many of our elected officials seem uninterested in disrupting, we’ve begun to look at the prospect of tragedy as something we need to prepare for. On Thursday, the superintendent of the Ithaca City School District sent out a reminder of safety protocols in place in the instance a mass shooting were to happen in the school. We were reminded to keep praying. And reporters around the country who weren’t in Florida this week wondered what they would do if it were up to them to cover the events as they unfolded.
Journalists from all over the country helicoptered in while others, in their offices in Manhattan, Washington and even Fort Lauderdale, worked the phones, inundating every available phone line in Broward County. Reporters did what reporters are supposed to do, chasing down teenagers, parents, policemen, whoever, to get clips for their own newscasts. They might be there only temporarily, but they offered the chance for a community in trauma to tell the world of the pain they felt, their reactions, and to document the consequences of evil as they played out in real time.
In a Twitter thread between a number of local journalists current and not, this was the prevailing perspective.
“These young adults have just had every inch of their childhood stripped from them. They are first-hand witnesses to horror,” argued Vaughn Golden, an Ithaca Times contributor now working in Washington, D.C. “Ignoring the purity of their raw emotion whitewashes this story and those like it.”
Jolene Almendarez, of The Ithaca Voice, added that as journalists, we shouldn’t be deciding for people whether and when they choose to share stories; that they should share when and how they choose. If a camera – or hundreds – are available to speak into, what’s to say it shouldn’t be yours? What gives any of us the right to deny the public of some nuance of the horrific consequences of horrific deeds to the rest of the world, in the hopes to motivate change? Whether or not one disagrees with the ethics of the visceral details, this is extremely valid reasoning for publishing our society’s rawest visions of evil: it shows the worst of what we must overcome.
But for the ironclad mission of journalism, humanity is prone to ambiguity in its application. As poignantly put several months ago by Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy, one of the first to arrive in another recent shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas: “there should be — there must be — a better way to cover a tragedy like this.”
Should we have hundreds of cameras and satellite trucks crowding a community in mourning? Badgering every person in town we can? Some might argue yes, and for extremely valid reasons. No local outlet, no matter the desire to, will have the resources to fairly and accurately capture the lives of each of the victims or to reach as many homes as we, on our own would be able to. It’s the national media that is the reason why, sitting here in an office an entire country away, I’m as aching and anxious for the sobbing strangers I saw on TV as someone in Colorado might be. But there’s also the negative impacts: research on something called the “Media Contagion Effect” has shown correlations between the extent of exposure of violent incidents and their impacts on other, similar incidents taking place elsewhere. To that end, as locals, do we shun mass media? Do we limit who among the mass media we talk to?
In our newsroom, the biggest questions I always ask of a reporter writing an article, are “what’s the point? What do you hope to accomplish with this piece? How will this benefit people?” As small town reporters, we may not have a role to play in sharing our story with the nation. But as neighbors, and as friends, we know we’ll have some role to play when the satellite trucks roll back on down Route 79.
I still don’t know what it will be. Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out. But I like Jolene’s idea best: “Tell the story.”
Recommended Reading: The Buffalo News’ Sean Kirst on trauma and tragedy.