Years ago I recognized that TV news had become primarily entertainment.
For decades, editors have said that “If it Bleeds, It Leads,” meaning that the most traumatic story would lead the newscast (even if it wasn’t the most relevant to viewers). That is all the more true in this age of round-the-clock reporting on TV, online, and social media.
After seeing all of the media attention toward multiple-victim shootings, I was reminded that the media essentially rewards violence, perhaps to the point of encouraging impressionable people to “just do it”:
Clearly, to go out in a big way you should make a very public attack: The media will immortalize you.
— Steve Case (@JoeBugBuster) December 14, 2012
Those who don’t believe in an afterlife now have a way to be immortalized in this life.
Continuous News Coverage
Andy Warhol famously predicted that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With the advent of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and continuous news coverage, you can be famous for way longer than 15 minutes if you do something spectacular.
Many in the media seem intent on making these incidents as big a spectacle as possible, churning out phrases like “the worst shooting of its kind in history,” or “the worst grade school shooting” ever. By narrowing their definition with terms like “of its kind” and “grade school” they can say it’s the worst ever. They treat Christmas shoppers and innocent children like sports scores.
Who Should We Remember?
I watched a bit of the Anderson Cooper 360 program the night of the Newtown shootings and must give credit where it’s due. Something like this really is news, so it needs to be reported, but I was relieved to see Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien make a point of not mentioning the shooter’s name or showing his picture. Though we will never forget what happened, the victims are the ones we should remember, not the killer.
This has been increasingly embraced, such as the admonition to Forget Oregon’s Gunman. Remember the Hero Who Charged Straight at Him. Similarly, the three who defeated a gunman on a French train are often mentioned without naming the shooter.
Don’t Dwell on the Trauma
Similarly, we need to remember that children can experience trauma from these events just by seeing them on TV. This is all the more serious if they are exposed to the film loops shown over and over again on news channels. Some children see repeated images of a tsunami wave or children being evacuated from a school and they think there is an unending number of waves and innumerable children are being evacuated. After 9/11, children could be traumatized by believing towers kept falling all day, and our own subconscious is not immune.
The stories our better selves want to hear are stories of the heroes, like the teachers who calmed and protected their charges – and in some cases gave their lives for them.
“Do-something disease” is rampant after tragedies like these. Many things are blamed by people across the political and moral spectrum:
- Ready access to firearms
- Drugs (whether a given perpetrator used or should have used them)
- Devaluation of human life
- Violence on TV and in movies and video games
Some demand a ban on fully-automatic weapons, not realizing that they are already very tightly restricted in America. Others want to ban semi-automatic weapons. The Law of Unintended Consequences observes that when government tries to ban or regulate something, other unanticipated reactions will likely manifest themselves. In China, for example, where firearms are tightly regulated, mass knife attacks make the news.
The bigger question is not about the weapons, but about the recent increase in scale of their abuse. These weapons have been with us for decades; what has changed?
Does the media reward spectacular violence? That seems pretty clear.
Does the media cause violence? Of course not.
What do you think is causing this?