Students across the country are fighting back against the NRA’s grip on American politics. Beyond Parkland, Florida, young people are staging walkouts and preparing for the upcoming March for Our Lives, which is expected to draw a crowd of 500,000 to Washington to protest gun violence and demand gun control. While their activism is noble, they might be better off using their spotlight to fight for more actionable change. Despite all the impassioned congressional debates in state capitols across the country, politicians have enacted only marginal change to keep guns out of dangerous hands. Meanwhile, our gun lobby-backed leaders continue to suggest absurd solutions to the epidemic of gun violence, such as arming teachers.
We should turn our attention to the ways in which gun violence and mass shootings are covered by mainstream corporate news. Cable television networks are particularly responsible for this coverage, but they could be doing a much better job. When it comes to gun violence, our elected representatives choose to ignore most Americans’ demands to enact gun control, but as corporations, media companies shoulder some responsibility to meet the demands of their customers, the viewers. If audiences circulated petitions to demand that media networks made the following six changes when covering gun violence, we might better understand why these crimes happen and help prevent future violence from occurring.
1. Don’t use the killers’ names.
Copycat killers are narcissists grasping for their 15 minutes of fame. Knowing this, a few journalists with major platforms, including Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper and Chris Berman, have vowed to stop using killers’ names on air. But no major news network has yet implemented a policy that requires journalists to refrain from naming shooters. It’s a simple move that might discourage more fame-seeking would-be shooters.
2. Publish crime scene photos.
On the flip side, while avoiding glamourizing these crimes can help prevent copycats, the media could fully leverage its power by depicting the true devastation of these shootings. As Jamelle Bouie argued in Slate after the Parkland shooting, Americans are so anesthetized to shootings that, “simply hearing about another shooting — seeing the familiar footage on television — has not been enough to turn ordinary Americans into activists or even single-issue voters. Maybe we need to see the results of our choices — of our policies — to prompt a change.” Bouie argues that if crime scene photos showed Americans the bloodshed that's happening around us, we might finally see real action.
These same networks have no problem depicting fictional bloodshed on popular crime dramas, so maybe they would be receptive to the idea.
3. Cover the whole story, and don’t abandon the issue after the news cycle moves on.
After students conducted a walkout in Baltimore following the Parkland shooting, Media Matters reports, “CNN and Fox News ignored the story completely, while MSNBC gave it less than a minute of coverage during its 1pm hour.” Rallies and protests aren't as compelling as footage of terrified kids running out of school buildings, but the political aftermath of mass violence has wide value to the public — more value than, say, endless nightly news speculation over how much cash Stormy Daniels could expect for her story on Donald Trump.
CNN took a step in the right direction when it televised the town hall debate between Parkland student activists and Marco Rubio and the NRA. There were 2.9 million people watching the debate that night, proving that Americans crave a resolution to these fundamental questions of gun policy, not just the schadenfreude of the carnage.
4. Report shootings in non-white neighborhoods.
Most gun violence victims in the U.S. are black, but that’s not the takeaway you get from cable news coverage, which typically focuses on shootings that take place at wealthier schools and majority-white neighborhoods.
Many news outlets called the Las Vegas slaughter of October 2017 the “worst mass shooting in American history.” But as activist Samuel Sinyangwe pointed out in a Twitter thread, that ignores the many massacres by white supremacists against African Americans during Jim Crow, including the murder of nearly 300 black men by a white mob in 1921 in Tulsa, known as the Black Wall Street massacre.
Another mother of a young shooting victim agrees. "I feel their pain, but on the other hand, after these mass shootings happen, people want to change gun laws and they’re marching in the streets,” DeAndra Yates said. “But when my 13-year-old was shot and injured, nobody did anything."
5. Include Black Lives Matter in the gun violence conversation.
National conversations about gun control usually occur after major mass shootings like Parkland. But gun violence happens just about every day in the U.S., and much of it is committed by police. One in 13 shootings are done by officers, and in 2016, 963 people were shot and killed by police. Black Lives Matter activists have voiced these concerns for years, yet young Black Lives Matter protesters are villainized for their advocacy, whereas the Parkland protesters (heroic as they are) are lauded by news media.
Author Roxane Gay pointed this out a few days after the Parkland shooting:
"It is interesting to note the difference in support for the kids in FL versus the kids in Black Lives Matter. I say that with full admiration for the kids in FL, to survive such a trauma and fight for everyone to be safer. But that’s also what was happening in Ferguson and beyond."
6. Talk about toxic masculinity and domestic violence.
As AlterNet and other progressive media have reported, there is a strong link between mass shooters and domestic violence. We can't fully explore why killers choose to enact their rage on so many people without connecting their violence to their histories of misogyny.
Media literacy educator Jennifer Pozner told AlterNet that in her decades observing the narratives mainstream media use to report on gun violence, “one thing we’re seeing is that progressive and liberal outlets and commentators have shifted away from mental illness to ‘guns themselves are the problem.’ And while guns themselves are a massive problem and the reason shooters are able to kill so many people at once, guns are the method, not the cause.” The cause at heart is toxic masculinity and misogyny.
“This focus on guns being the reason is itself a form of erasure of what motivates these men to pick up guns in the first place," Pozner added. "We absolutely need to deal with the lack of regulation of guns in this country, but we also need to deal even more so with the reason they pick up guns. And that’s not happening in media yet."