When is a Mass Shooting a Tragedy, and When is it Business as Usual?

2013 at times seemed like the year of the mass shooting, which sounds like a chilling and awful thing to say, but the year was one characterised by repeated horrific mass murders across the nation. Similarly, 2012 was marked by a number of shooting incidents. The media predictably covered many events in chilling and complete detail, underscoring the dangers of modern living in a world where a person with a gun might pop up in a seemingly mundane, calm, ordinary place—a political event, a movie theatre, a mall, an elementary school—and open fire on innocent people.

Cynical analysis of such coverage often isn’t very welcome, and neither is that which attempts to tease fact from fiction. To sort out the complexities of media coverage and to explore the ways in which stereotypes and social attitudes play into the way the media, and the public, react to mass shootings. People attempting analysis of the handling of mental illness, for example, are told that they’re distracting from a national tragedy, that they’re being irresponsible, that they’re not doing anyone any favours.

I’ve spent a lot of my career covering violence and mental illness, working with other mental health and disability advocates to dispel extremely harmful myths about mental health conditions and violence. If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time, I don’t need to rehash old ground in that respect. But I’m also interested in other nuances of mass shootings; for example, the racial element, in which white perpetrators are labeled as crazy, while people of colour and nonwhite people are considered ‘terrorists.’

There’s a deeper racial element too, though, and that’s in the nature of which shootings make their way to the news at all. If you consume the media it may feel like you’re constantly being inundated in mass shooting coverage, but in fact, that’s not the case. Of the mass shootings that occur annually, only a fraction make it into the actual mainstream national news, and it’s worth taking a look at why that is.

You might say that some shootings don’t have enough victims to qualify for national coverage, which is a bit harsh, but could be true; we don’t see every homicide everywhere in the United States reported, for example, because a single homicide or even a double murder is considered regional news in most cases. But in fact, mass shootings involving large numbers of victims have gone unreported, so it’s not about a hard numbers game, someone in editorial saying ‘you must shoot at least this many to ride the front page.’

So it’s not about number of victims. Is it about setting? Is a mass shooting considered less newsworthy in a place where you ‘expect’ rampage violence to take place? Well, where do you ‘expect’ violence? Cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have been struggling with violence for some time, and there were unreported mass shootings in both last year. So…what were factors in these cases?

Most of them involved young men of colour, and many were assigned as drug or gang-related crimes by the police and local media. This puts the finger on the pulse of why they weren’t reported: while the cities they took place in reported on them and the communities they tore apart dealt with them in their own way, the national media weren’t interested. They were seen as isolated, local, regional issues in the way that a shooting involving a large group of mostly white people in a ‘neutral’ place isn’t.

Implication: The streets of places like Chicago and Philadelphia are not safe, and this is not news.

In the summer, shootings take place routinely around the Lake, and they’re a topic of much discussion within the city. Outside Chicago, there’s a sort of generic idea that the city is violent, and some people are aware of an ongoing violence problem, which they usually attribute to ‘gangs’ and ‘drugs’ (by which they mean ‘Black people’), and they aren’t usually aware of the steps communities are taking to address the issue. When multiple young Black men are shot in Chicago, even if they’re innocent of any crime, that doesn’t make national news.

If I was shot at the Lake while visiting Chicago, it would likely make national news. Young white person caught in the crossfire of brutal violence. Likewise, if a white University of Chicago student happened to be on the site of a mass shooting, it would suddenly become news; because now this isn’t a ‘regional’ or ‘local’ problem, but one that involves ‘everyone’ (by which we mean ‘white people’). Meanwhile, the deaths of young men of colour aren’t remarkable; they’re viewed as typical, how life is for ‘them,’ the cost of living. Or dying, as the case may be.

What would happen if the media were to start reporting on every single mass shooting (four or more victims in a single incident) in the United States? Every. Single. One. What would happen if social media exploded every time more than four people were killed in a single incident, anywhere in the United States?

We would live in a very different landscape, one in which people would be aware that mass murder is actually much more prevalent than they previously believed, and a much more serious problem than they previously understood. We also might live in a world where people might better understand the value of the lives of young men of colour: because the media would be treating those lives as though they had value, and deserved the same respect accorded to white victims of murder.