When massacres stop making news: Navy Yard shooting just a blip
While sitting in a Jiffy Lube waiting room on Dec. 14, 2012, I received a handful of frantic texts from friends and family telling me to turn on the news. But, like the rest of the nation, I was already watching, huddled on metal folding chairs with three other stranded strangers, our eyes glued to images of screaming school children being ushered out of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Body count: 26.
On Sept. 17, 2013, I received texts from three different friends asking me why flags were at half-mast. “The Navy Yard shooting yesterday?” I texted back, as if I hadn’t only stumbled upon the tragedy the day before on Twitter. Body count: 12 dead, 8 injured.
In the days, weeks and months after Newtown shooting, news organizations curated and crafted updates, graphics and narratives almost as quickly as the public demanded them. But barely 48 hours after the Navy Yard shootings, the national media had already moved on, according to a Sept. 18, 2013 article in the Washington Post:
“On Fox News, the midday panel discussed something called ‘the Hiccup Girl trial.’ Yahoo.com’s lead story was about the early retirement of an NFL player (also big on Yahoo: “Forget Pumpkin Pie! Say Hello to Your New Favorite Pumpkin Dessert”). MSNBC had the jump on a “brain-eating amoeba” affecting someone, somewhere in Louisiana. CNN, struggling for decency and dignity, coupled coverage of the shooting’s aftermath with live updates about the safe return of an abducted 14-year-old girl in Georgia.”
Separate tragedies elicit separate responses. But each journalist knows in his or her heart of hearts that the coverage from Navy Yard shooting was different — different from Newtown, from Aurora, from Virginia Tech, from Westroads Mall. The rampage lacked the public attention of its predecessors, signaling what President Obama described in his eulogy for the victims as a “creeping resignation” toward the inevitability of gun violence.
But does resignation rise from the media or from the public’s call for sensationalism? In the Washington Post article, writer Paul Farhi said the rampage lacked the elements necessary for sustained interest:
“The cynical truth is that the Navy Yard murders — we’ve yet to agree on the shorthand name for this event — had neither the kinds of victims nor the story that sustains media interest and public revulsion. Those who study crime can tell you what excites and interests the public, which is not just about titillation. Outrage is important. ”
Even the word “rampage,” the headline buzzword for the shooting, puts more emphasis on the erratic actions of the shooter than the lives he stole. As Americans invest their emotions in new fears of terrorism and chemical weapons, a handful of middle-aged government employees killed by a confused young man doesn’t carry the same disbelief and outrage it used to.
So if the public is becoming desensitized to massacre, how should news organizations respond to the real significance of 12 innocent lives lost? Does the Navy Yard shooting deserve the same extensive coverage as Newtown? And would the public even read if it was given them?
Maybe significance takes time —for the tribute pages to pop up, for the gun rights activists to use the rampage as ammunition for their campaigns, for the all-too-normal lives of the victims to emerge in heartbreaking long-form narrative. But for reporters and editors hopefully aiming to seek truth and report it, it’s imperative we continue struggling with the uncomfortable question: Why are we covering (or not covering) this?
Is news only news if someone is interested?
– Anna Gronewold