Note: Like my last post regarding the Newtown shooting, I am not intending to make light of the tragedy that occurred or the 26 lives lost. This post is written strictly from the perspective of a mass communications scholar.
1) United States vs. China
On literally the same calendar date as the Newtown shooting, a man in China attacked and slashed 22 schoolchildren with a knife. The similarities between this and the Newtown tragedy are jarring. In addition to the choice of weapon, the most noteworthy difference was that not a single child died in China from that incident. It’s also well known that China has very strict gun control laws.
I won’t make the leap to causation, but it’s very hard to divorce the two ideas. The fact that two attacks on different sides of the world took place on the same day, and the one that occurred in a country with strong gun laws meant all of those schoolchildren are still alive today.
This story has the potential to be a very important talking point in the impending gun control debate in the States. But what I find most interesting is that this anecdotal evidence can be reasonably used by both sides of the debate. The pro gun control group can say that if guns were not as easily available, then Newtown may have ended the same way as the incident in China. The anti gun control group can say that violence is going to occur anyway and that it’s in our human nature, and that we need to be able to protect ourselves from those who are unbalanced. Also worth noting is that schoolchildren attacks in China are surprisingly and disturbingly not uncommon.
2) Social Media as News Sources
In my previous blog post, I touched upon how I think CNN’s over-reliance on social media and crowdsourcing for their reporting is lazy and bad for the news industry.
But that’s not the whole story. Consider the fact that if Facebook didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have firsthand accounts of Ryan Lanza declaring his innocence (and the fact that he was alive).
Consider this Reddit thread in /r/Connecticut, where a user made up-to-the-minute updates regarding the latest breaking news. In a world where it’s hard to recant statements or reports, the ability to edit or update content on the web makes so much sense.
3) News vs. Pseudo-News
Regarding that last point, I would not consider Slate a source for breaking news. I have long viewed it as an editorial and blog-like news magazine. But when CNN misreported the identity of the Newtown shooter, it was organizations like Slate that responded with the truth.
With the Internet becoming the preferred choice for receiving news from a larger percentage of people, the line between strict news organizations and “pseudo-news” sites is further blurred. Consider a site like Buzzfeed, that largely started out as a gossip and funny image-sharing site. During the last election, they had a Mormon writer on Mitt Romney’s bus reporting from his perspective how religion was involved in the campaign.
With the reliability of the big name news organizations increasingly being called into question, it’s getting hard to know who to go to for the hard facts.
Just ask NPR. They took a big shot in credibility back in 2011 when it misreported that Representative Gabby Giffords had died.
4) Racial Issues
It’s no secret that ever since 9/11, the race of violent perpetrators is always brought to the forefront. For instance, when someone of foreign descent commits an atrocity, it’s usually quickly chalked up to terrorism by select members of the media (e.g. the Fort Hood shooting from 2009). But how many times have you heard Timothy McVeigh called a domestic terrorist? What about extreme zealots who commit crimes against abortion clinics? These are clearly acts of domestic terrorism, but they’re very rarely addressed as such by the mainstream media. Which is what led to Bob Schieffer making a very poignant hypothetical on Face the Nation. Schieffer said, “If this person had… an Arab name, people would be going nuts.” See the abbreviated video clip below:
There’s no doubt in my mind that that would’ve been the case. In fact, I know that some people of Middle Eastern descent hold their breath whenever they find out that an act of violence has occurred on American soil, hoping that it’s not someone of their ethnicity. I even remember two years after the Virginia Tech shooting, there was another act of violence in Binghamton, NY where an Asian man went postal at an immigration office and killed 13 others. There was a short-lived time when race relations between Asian-Americans and other Americans suffered, but luckily, there weren’t any real residual effects. However, Muslims and Arab-Americans have not been so lucky.
As insensitive as it may seem to state this, the fact that the Newtown shooter was a white, American male (and not anyone with a foreign sounding name or skin complexion) is a lot better for our national discourse. The media can focus on the two biggest issues at hand that they usually throw to the wayside for sensationalist, xenophobic fear mongering. Gun control and mental illness are the major topics of discussion, rather than the race or nationality of the shooter.
There are many more reasons why the Newtown shooting can and should be one of the biggest stories of the year and also a media case study for years to come. I’m sure once the gun debate actually happens on a national stage, it will become clearer how these factors helped shape the narrative. And hopefully for the better.