A couple of months ago, my friend Tom Siebert sent me an email asking if I had heard about yet another mass handgun shooting that took place the week of Sept. 27 in Minnesota. Tom is the head of
communications at JWT’s Digitaria, which has been expanding its operations in Minneapolis, so he was spending time in the state and wondered why the story didn’t get more play in the
national media. My reply to him, in retrospect, was a bit callous, but maybe not so far from the truth.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I replied, “if it has become so commonplace in America that the media only cover it when it strays into man bites dog -- or dog shoots man -- territory.”
The reference is to an expression in journalism that news isn’t when something normal -- like a dog biting a man -- happens, but when something unusual happens, like a man biting a dog. And that the American media, and maybe even the American public, have grown so inured by our violent gun culture, that even a man killing five people and himself, as was the case in Minnesota, is no longer that significant from a media point of view. In other words, it’s no longer about people killing other people with handguns. It’s about the narrative -- the who, what, when, where and why -- of it. Dye your hair orange, dress up in SWAT gear and massacre an audience attending a “Batman” movie at a crowded theater in Aurora, Colo., and it’s big news, makes headlines and becomes part of the national dialogue -- for better or worse. Show up for work and murder your colleagues at a local sign company in Minnesota, and, well, it’s not such big news.
I am sharing my exchange with Tom with you now, not because I am callous, but because I think there is another important role for the media industry to consider in all of this, which is how we play the story.
We may never know exactly what led a young man to shoot his mother and then gun down 20 innocent children and six adults before shooting himself at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, but I can’t help wondering about the role media played in it. And by that, I don’t just mean the obvious role media plays in celebrating gun violence. I also mean the way media covers stories like this and whether and how that influences the story itself.
I am not an expert on mental illness, but one of the experts I listened to during this weekend’s news coverage said it is common for the perpetrators to “feel like they are victims of injustice” and to “strike back at the parts of society where we are most vulnerable.”
I can’t think of anything more vulnerable than an elementary school in bucolic Newtown, CT, and that raises equally important questions for our society that I don’t even know how to begin to address in a column like this. For now, I’d just like you to consider what role our industry has in shaping the narratives that cause people to do things -- powerfully good things, and devastatingly unimaginable things -- and whether we can somehow influence their outcome in a better way.
It’s hard to imagine that there is as horrible a narrative as the one that took place in the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, but the truth is that horrible people have been doing horrible things to other people as long as there have been people in the world. Sometimes media can play a positive role in illuminating it in way that makes things better, as Tom’s agency Digitaria has done by helping Invisible Children make the world aware of the atrocities being committed by warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. But sometimes I think media brings so much attention to bad things that maybe -- just maybe -- it is part of the reason they happen too.
According to the FBI’s crime statistics database, there were 14,724 murders reported by U.S. municipalities with populations of 100,000 or more in 2011, the last year it has published statistics for. The database doesn’t indicate how many of them were multiple murders or committed with a handgun, but that averages out to at least 40.3 murders in U.S. cities each day. Ironically, the 28 people who died in Newtown, CT (pop. 27,560) won’t even show up in that database.