Yesterday, there was another mass shooting at another college campus, this time in Oregon. This was was close to me, not geographically, but for other reasons–very close. It’s devastating. Almost equally devastating as the carnage of the shooting, for me, is the carnal coverage that is triggered–pun intended, because we need to get to the heart of this–by every one of these events. We think of Columbine as the beginning, but there’s an earlier precedent that I remember.
When I was in high school, I was an absolute outcast. This was largely because of my sexuality: being gay in the 1990s was not an OK thing, and I didn’t work hard at denying who I am. That just never made sense to me and, frankly, I always knew I’d look like a fool if I tried to act straight. I’m not that convincing of an actor. So people didn’t associate with me; at lunch for several years, I sat alone at a stretch of table, and people called me flattering and creative nicknames like “faggot” and often threw food at me. Did I feel victimized? I did. I would love to say I’m above that label, but yes, I felt like a victim. And as often is the case, the marginalized person was further marginalized by being called and made to feel like it was my fault. I was completely silent (one of the reasons Tori Amos has been so specifically resonant in my life), and that was fodder for my peers to jokingly relate me to the truly tragic and mysteriously violent people in our society, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, about whom people always seem to say “he was quiet; he kept to himself; he seemed like a nice person,” etc. I was quiet in school. I kept to myself. I am, actually, a nice person. The truth is, the way I’ve been treated by people has created a kind of rage and violent thoughts, but for me–as with many LGBT youth–these ideations always were directed inward. My fantasies were of self-harm; I dreamed of ending my suffering, not of seeking revenge by killing off masses of people. The thought never entered my mind.
Still, while I was in middle and high school, there was a term for such events: it was called “going postal.” No one had ever heard of a mass school shooting when I was young. The Columbine high school shooting occurred in 1999; I graduated from high school in 1996. Copycat school shootings happened shortly after the Columbine shooting.
I graduated from college in 2001. In 2002, four people were shot to death at the University of Arizona. What makes these sorts of things happen?
Wikipedia has a page dedicated to school shootings…just a glance at it reveals that they’ve never been uncommon; however, they do seem to follow a trend: the more attention a shooting gets, the likelier it is that they will occur again in a similar setting. In my youth, U.S. Postal Service workers who were overly stressed shot up their workplaces. The news media dubbed this phenomenon “going postal.” You can’t get much more workplace specific than that. But once Columbine was the story du jour, “school shootings” took on a life of their own as a societal phenomenon. Look again at that Wikipedia page: surprisingly (for me, anyway), there have been many, many school shootings–but the pre-Columbine ones seem to have been limited to small numbers of victims, and they didn’t create mass media attention, or mass panic. They were largely isolated incidents and not the acts of terrorism that today’s common shootings have become. Yes, terrorism.
I find myself saying all the time to parents that I am so happy I don’t have children. I couldn’t handle the emotional toll of sending my children to a school and not knowing if they were going to come back–not to mention worrying about their futures given environmental damage and the devastation that corporations such as Monsanto are having on our planet, our food supply, and our political system. This world has changed so much since my youth that it’s difficult to make sense of all the facets that have changed for the worse.
Still, one aspect looks to my eyes pretty cut and dry, and I have a strong opinion on this (recognizing that my opinion is controversial and a matter of great debate–to me, it doesn’t look that way).
I worked from 1997 through 2008 for an organization that worked hard to encourage television creators–producers, writers, and others–to incorporate accurate depictions of various health and social issues into their programming. The point was to communicate information about wellness to audiences through dramatic depictions in a non-didactic way so that audiences could understand the real-world implications of addiction, mental disorders, and other issues and then make decisions to improve their own lives. I have real faith in this approach to this day. All forms of mass communication influence how we think and behave. This includes the news media.
I work in communications, not as a mainstream reporter, but as a freelance writer and, as a day job, in PR. I’ve worked in the higher education sector and in the entertainment sector, and I’ve done a lot of cause-related communications and writing.
Yesterday’s shooting, as with all mass shootings since Columbine, has been in the headlines since it happened. As with all of those shootings, every gruesome, graphic new detail has been reported and will continue to be reported, with particular levels of exploitation by cable news outlets such as CNN and Fox News. I feel strongly that this is a mistake with dire, tragic consequences.
Copycat killings only occur, and only occur to copycat killers, when there is something to copy. My theory is that there are multiple reasons that these things happen: one comes down to the very simple concept of terrorism in general. Terrorists create havoc, panic, and terror as a means by which to destabilize communities and individuals’ feelings of security, and concurrently as a means by which to garner attention. When the news media covers acts of terrorism obsessively, as they do in the case of every mass shooting, they are giving terrorists exactly what the terrorists want–whether the shooters remain alive or dead, they are doing what the shooters wanted them to do, and becoming terrorists themselves.
The second reason I think people do this–most often young people–is because they are marginalized and acting out publicly in a way that is guaranteed to get attention and to make their point known, or in an equal and opposite way to become the monsters that their peers say they are because they’ve run out of options. This is a more complex aspect of the phenomenon, but one to which I can relate in a way, and if people want these kinds of tragedies to stop, we need to become kinder as individuals and as communities. And the media needs to become more thoughtful. Our current political and mass communications models are entirely polarized: Christians versus LGBT and women’s rights; Republicans versus Democrats; immigrants versus “the American people”; European Americans versus African Americans; and most often, but least often explicitly stated, the upper class versus the lower classes. The United States of America is a paradox of hypocrisy: we are brought up believing that our country is a representative democracy in which everyone has an equal chance at life, when in reality–and it’s more deniable than ever–we have a well-defined social caste system that parallels that of the United Kingdom, but we don’t acknowledge it, ever. However, well all feel it and know it. Conrad Hilton’s insane-seeming rant on an airplane was, in reality, an explosion of honesty from a spoiled upper-class American heir. His sister–not Paris, the other one–just married into the Rothschild family, so if there ever was a question about whether the Hiltons are apart from average Americans, that question is settled.
What does this have to do with mass shootings? Everything, I think.
The media, including both the news media and entertainment, craft our discussions and therefore guide our very thinking. I am absolutely disturbed and disgusted by and cannot make sense of the news media’s collective decision to make real-life horrors a blood sport and serve them up in gruesome detail while framing them as tragedies that no one can believe. The news media makes us think, falsely, that everything in life is a polar opposition of this versus that, and that’s not true. It’s really not true: most people who pay attention to politics choose a team and side with it absolutely, ignoring the nuances (e.g., ignoring actual thinking) that are the gray areas in between Red or Blue. They choose a team as arbitrarily and absolutely as they choose a football team based on proximity to where they live, and become emotionally involved in their own vicarious win through the actions of that team. There’s no real-life basis for that affinity: it’s a social convention that doesn’t relate in any way to the reality of the world. The media make everything a direct opposition, though, with the exception of the elite royals versus the poorer average person, and in the United States of America, unlike countries in which people are told explicitly that elevating one’s status is close to impossible, everyone is made to strive for independent fame or infamy. Many people here feel they have to make something incredible of their lives and become psychologically confused when they can’t figure out how to do it; the reality, though, is that there are as many barriers to becoming elite in this country as there are in others. We have a real caste system based on money, social connections, and beauty, and the story of Bonnie and Clyde after all these years is still a relevant example of an American ideal of needing fame that many people feel is worth actually dying for.
It bears repeating: There would be no copycat killers if there were nothing to copy. If we want mass shootings to diminish, we have to stop making celebrities of the shooters. I don’t accept any debate at all on this point: the news media, and the entertainment media, bear responsibility for a great number of murders and suicides carried out by disturbed people because they celebrate these people–yes, celebrate–in the spirit of Bonnie and Clyde: for those who feel invisible and aspire to “be somebody,” but are made to feel by their peers that they are inferior, defective outcasts, infamous is the only alternative to famous, or even “good enough.”
CNN: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
Fox News: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
MSNBC: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
NBC News: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
ABC News: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
CBS News: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
Sunday morning talking heads shows: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events.
Ryan Murphy: Stop doing the work of terrorists by giving endless coverage that details every horrific aspects of these sorts of events. You tapped into real horror with that school shooting scene in the first season of American Horror Story–and I have an MFA in creative writing and I give a great deal of allowance to dramatizing human stories fictionally–but you also contributed to the potential of future copycat killings by showing a school shooter as an outcast who became a sexy, tragic hero as a ghost.
It has to stop.
It has to stop.
It has to stop.
I am pro gun control, but this is the United States of America and that conversation is a separate conversation that I don’t think will be won in this country. And it’s half the problem–guns do kill people, no question.
Crafting a social psychology that makes mass shootings a viable option for fame/infamy is half the problem, too. It’s not first-person shooter video games; it’s making it into the history books of the country, the mass media, and numbers of families who lost children and brothers and sister as the victims of infamous shooters.
I am wrong a lot. Occasionally I know with certainty that I am not wrong. I know with certainty, with absolute faith in this knowledge, that if the news media never reported another mass shooting even when they happen, the number of public shootings would decline immediately and significantly. Period.
I am sick of being terrorized by this phenomenon. I was physically sickened yesterday by the Umpqua shooting; I had to deal with it directly because of my job, and I am sick, sick, sick of it.
I can make a plea for people to be kinder to one another, supportive of one another, so that people will not be forced into dire emotional states that make them want to hurt themselves and others, but a quick glance at any online comments section–whether on news outlets or YouTube–reveals that many, and perhaps even a majority, of people have dark, damaging natures. I can’t understand it, but these online forums really reveal a dark side of humanity that we don’t usually see when interacting with people face to face. So can we make people kinder? Probably not.
Can we censor the media and force them to limit coverage to the headline and not exploit in sickening detail every aspect of tragic mass shootings? Technically, yes, this could be done, but for better or worse in this country we believe in freedom of speech and so this isn’t an option at all.
So what option do we have?
We have the option to make the right choice and CHOOSE to forgo guaranteed ratings, even sacrificing business to the competition, and refuse to give air time to celebrating terrorism. We can choose not to tell the names or show pictures of people who carry out killings. We can choose to tell the truth, that the United States of America is not an exception to the global and human-social rule of graduated classes, and in doing so, stop selling this false idea of American “success” as coming from nothing to become someone in the headlines. That happens for some people, but not for most. But when we say it can happen to anyone, then we end up with people who have to be a headline, for better or worse, or at least die trying to do so.
Mass shootings are too complex to distill well, and I’ve done an incomplete job of it here. I know that. I am writing this out of desperate frustration to say something or do something to curb this American illness. I know my small voice won’t make a real impact.
And that kills a part of me because I do know this, I really know this: if the media self-limited graphic reports of mass shootings, there would be an immediate and truly significant reduction in the frequency and scale of these events. No question. But no, CNN is not going to do that anytime soon–or ever. So to CNN, and Fox, and ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and every other outlet: you share in the blame for these killings. I know you deny it, producers and anchors alike, but you are serving the role of domestic terrorism with the graphic stories you show and tell, and it’s a shameful, shameful thing that you do.