Just this Sunday in Las Vegas, something horrible happened. Two cops were gunned down in a local CiCi’s restaurant by a man and a woman shouting “this is a revolution”. They retreated from the restaurant and ran into a nearby Wal-Mart. After killing another person inside the store, they were confronted by cops at the back entrance. After a gunfight, the two of them turned their weapons on themselves, executing a form of a suicide pact.
The stunned community in Vegas has been struggling this week trying to make sense of what occurred. Why did this happen? What were the two perpetrators thinking? What possessed them to commit such an atrocity? These are questions that journalists can, and should, try to answer. And they’ve been doing a fairly good job so far. They’ve uncovered the anti-government rhetoric that the two killers had, interviewed neighbors and acquaintances who confirmed that the two were zealous in their stance against the government. They may have even uncovered a manifesto belonging to the perpetrators.
But there’s a problem. I’ve seen where this leads. The path these cases tend to go down is one of scapegoating. Journalists will answer the questions very quickly, and draw attention to the victims immediately after the event takes place. But in the following weeks, that most likely won’t be true. Because it happens the same way every time. Inevitably, we as a society become obsessed with the perpetrator or perpetrators of such an act, to the point where we want to find a reason for their behavior. We want to know what made them that way, and we want the simple answer. So naturally, we try to find the one thing, the silver bullet so to speak, that explains everything.
It would be easy, wouldn’t it? If we could just lob the blame unto one particular person or entity and leave it at that. But life is never simple, and this is where modern journalism tends to do us a disservice. Journalists in the period after the event tend to focus far too much effort on the person who carried out the act, even if there really isn’t anything new to report. It breeds this strange curiosity that often borders on psychotic obsession. It creates this illusion that we live in a horribly dangerous world full of crime, when the reality is that crime has been on a general downward trend over the last couple of decades.
Something needs to change.
Everyone remembers the person who stepped inside the Sandy Hook school and opened fire on the students. Everyone remembers his story and his psychotic mental state. But no one remembers the victims. No one remembers the heroes. No one remembers Victoria, the schoolteacher who hid her students in the lockers and then told the shooter that they weren’t in the classroom. She died that day, protecting those she taught. And I saw her name mentioned once, as a tiny part of the larger story.
And you know what the sad thing is? I’m not even completely sure her name was Victoria. Everyone remembers the villains. Few remember the heroes.
And that’s where it can start to change. The news tends to give far too much attention to the crazy people carrying out these acts. If they could focus more on the victims, those who perished as a result. If they could focus on the heroes, those who laid down their lives to protect their fellow humans. If they could focus on the people whose stories really matter, then maybe society as a result wouldn’t be so cynical.
If we focus on the victims more in our news coverage, then we take away the spotlight from the perpetrators. Part of the reason I think these people do what they do is because they know they’ll get attention, and lots of it. They have these delusions of grandeur, of going out with a bang. They don’t care if they live or die, because they know people will finally pay attention to them. I say don’t give them that attention. Give the psychos one less reason to act out.
Part of the reason journalists do what they do is to help inform the general public, and that’s where I feel journalists have been dropping the ball in the past decade or so. Think back to the aftermath of 9/11. It was a horrible event, to be sure. No one’s doubting that. But the journalism industry as a whole dropped the ball during that period. They’re supposed to answer the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. They did a good job on the first four, but they didn’t with the fifth and final one. They didn’t try hard enough to answer “why”.
This is partially due to intense patriotic backlash. Any journalist that tried to publish anything talking about how Osama Bin Laden was upset because the United States government was placing troops outside the borders of Saudi Arabia was immediately labeled as unpatriotic and dangerous. People didn’t want to hear that the United States was interfering in affairs that weren’t its concern. People didn’t want to hear that on some level, the United States had provoked the attack on September 11th.
This allowed the government, and particularly then-president George W. Bush, to create a scenario where it was good versus evil, black and white. They attacked us because they hated our freedom. They were against our ideals, so they had to be stopped. And thus began the Afghanistan War, a war which still isn’t entirely over to this day. Sure, the real reasons behind it were far more complicated than the good versus evil dynamic, but no one cared to listen to them. Everyone wanted the simple explanation. They did back then, and they still do now.
The Fourth Estate
Journalists were originally conceived as watchdogs for the people. They were seen as figures who would question and tear down the government at all costs, to expose any wrongdoing on the part of politicians and other elected officials. They were to keep the government in check, and make sure it wasn’t abusing its power. But now, that has changed significantly. Journalists no longer question the government as harshly as they used to. It’s high time for things to change.
Like the school shootings and the incident in Vegas, there isn’t just one factor in it that affects everything. It’s not just journalists. It’s not just the public. It’s not just societal values. It’s all of them, and more. To start with, journalists should be more hard-hitting in their questions. Don’t take the easy answer. Push the hard questions. Don’t report what people want to hear, but what they need to hear.
The public needs to push its journalists, and encourage more dynamic thought. There are too many organizations like MSNBC or Fox News out there, who are so obviously bent towards one viewpoint that they can’t even begin to understand the other. Journalists are going to have opinions, just like any other human being. But they need to understand that we the public need to know all sides of an issue, and we need to push them to do so. We need to let them know we are not satisfied with simple sound bytes and press releases.
Journalism cannot be bogged down by fear, because then it can’t do what it needs to do as an institution. But at the same time, it cannot be allowed to run rampant with the same stories over and over again, or we end up with a dozen different stories analyzing the mind of a killer, and none telling the stories of the victims and heroes who put their lives on the line. In the end, you have to ask yourself a question. What do you want journalism to do for you? Do you want it to give you the facts, the hard-hitting details behind the big issues facing our country and the world at large? Or do you want it to recycle junk stories about smart phone apps and pointless speculation? I know my answer, because if the face of modern news is the video below, then I weep for what has become of our once proud institution.
Things need to change. And it all starts with asking for more.
That’s all for this week folks. Next week’s blog will be the focal point of the six o’clock news (I wish). Until then, have a great week everybody.