Selective Media Coverage Devalues Lives

I was reading the American Journalism Review recently, as one does, when I encountered a piece about media coverage of shootings, and how media depiction of violence in the United States shapes social attitudes. One reason I enjoy reading the AJR is because of its honest and unflinching assessments of the state of modern journalism and the effect of journalistic practices on larger society, so I found this piece particularly interesting because there are a number of facets of mass media coverage of shootings that are tangled with extremely thorny issues.

One quote in the piece really stood out for me, forming the crux of the argument being made:

[Kelly McBride] said news organizations’ predictable shooting coverage decisions place ‘a different value on different lives based on where the homicide occurs.’

‘When we do that,’ she added, ‘we dismiss the value of poor people, and a lot of time, the value of people of color because of where the violence happens.’

She’s an analyst with Poynter, another great source for information and discussion on journalistic ethics. And she was right on point (so to speak) with this sharp assessment of the disparities in the coverage of shootings across the US. Mall and school shootings, as well as other mass shooting events, excite tremendous amounts of attention in the media, which in turn communicates more excitement to members of the public. There’s a huge amount of interest in such events which unfurls not just during the breaking news period, but also long after, with retrospectives, think pieces, and more, all relating to the incident as well as the shooter(s).

Yet, the vast majority of violence in the United States doesn’t come in the form of showy mass shootings. It comes in daily violence in communities big and small, but particularly in low-income communities of colour, where exploitation creates a charged environment for young men shot down by police, caught in crossfire, and more. These events, however, don’t make their way to the national news, considered at best a regional issue. While many commentators have a raft of reasons for this, they don’t cut to the core of the problem articulated by McBride: why do we continue to engage in media coverage that devalues some lives and communities while pouring attention on to rampage violence, something that may not necessarily be a good idea socially or psychologically?

Many journalists claim that smaller-scale violence is reported on after it happens, while rampage violence often breaks as a news item while it’s still happening. As such, there’s an immediacy to it that makes it a compelling news story, as well as a demonstrable need to perform a public service. Members of a community need to know when a killer has been apprehended, for example, or where it’s safe to travel. Providing information can help to prevent panic and limit unwise decisions on the part of residents who might otherwise act on incomplete information and end up endangering themselves or others.

‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is a saying for a reason, and journalists are acutely aware that an actively unfolding story is more interesting to many consumers than one that has already passed. When news is breaking, there’s always more to tell, and there’s more reason to keep people riveted to a website, TV station, or radio set — because people want updates, they want to know more, and they want to track what’s happening. That sense of real-time drama is lost when you’re reporting about events that have already occurred; a shooting on the lake in Chicago isn’t interesting if it happened in the past, regardless as to whether it’s part of a larger pattern of violence and destruction in communities of colour.

Journalists also argue that rampage violence provides larger-scale interest than regional and local events of an isolated nature. A single murder in New York City doesn’t meet the standards for notability unless it involves a famous person or highly unusual circumstances — yet, this very argument highlights the fact that journalists are valuing some lives over others. Why is a murder more important when it involves a celebrity or a very strange manner of death? Isn’t it just as important when it involves a trans woman of colour, or an elementary school student shot by a police weapon in a home raid?

Some might counter that covering every single murder in the United States with exhausting level of detail wouldn’t be feasible, and they’re right; people would also get very tired of reading extremely thick newspapers with a huge list of murders every morning. But this doesn’t mean that lives need to be devalued in the way the media handles coverage of death in the United States. Murders that occur as part of a larger social pattern should be national news, and we should be talking about their roots, origins, and motivations; it’s important for people to understand, for example, why there’s a pattern of violence in low-income communities. Murders at the hands of police officers are also critical to cover, and not from the point of view of wanting to point and gawk at rioting protesters who are tired of violence within their communities.

There is a way to achieve journalistic balance in the covering of shootings, though it requires more creativity and more in-depth exploration of larger social trends. Every murder in the United States matters, and it should matter to those in charge of conveying information to the public; we owe it to victims and their families to discuss shootings with equal gravity and thoroughness no matter who is involved, and where they take place.

Oscar Grant mural by Thomas Hawk, Flickr.