G&A Perspectives: When is a Shooting a 'National Tragedy'?

On Sept. 16, 2013, a civilian contractor with some history of mental illness used a valid security pass to enter the Washington Navy Yard. Hidden in his backpack was a disassembled shotgun, which he'd purchased in Virginia after passing a federal background check.

You know how this sad story ends: 13 people died, including the shooter, and three were wounded.

The Navy Yard shooting drew tremendous attention from various media outlets, as well as politicians. Calls for gun control were raised in op-ed pieces and by politicians, notably President Barack Obama and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The pro-gun side countered that the incident exposed the futility of gun control, given that the shooter passed a background check and committed this atrocious act within a highly secured "gun free zone."

Flags were still at half-staff when, four days later, a gang-related shooting at a Chicago park interrupted a pickup basketball game. Nobody was killed, but 13 were wounded, including a 3-year-old boy, who was struck in the jaw.

You may not have heard of this incident — regional media covered it, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., cited it in a gun-control push, yet national coverage was limited.

Why, many wondered, did the two incidents receive such an apparent disparity in coverage?

As gun owners, it is important to understand why certain shootings are labeled national tragedies by the media, while other seemingly similar events receive only a passing glance. After all, politicians tend to capitalize on the news cycle to advance all sorts of agendas, including those affecting gun laws.

I sought answers from one of the country's leading experts on media ethics, Prof. Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her analysis provides a common sense explanation of what the media considers newsworthy, as well as a sobering look at today's fragmented information world.

What Determines News Value?

For major media outlets to consider an event — tragic or otherwise — to be nationally significant, it must cross a certain "news value" or "news factor" threshold. While this value is impossible to define quantitatively, Grimes has devised what she describes as a "whimsical attempt" to illustrate the formula, available here.

"The news 'values' or news factors [journalists consider] include rarity, proximity to the news organization's audience, prominence of the people or places involved, controversy, conflict, the number of people affected and how intensely they're affected," Grimes wrote in an email. "Death, for example, is a pretty intense effect."

Navy Yard Shooting vs. Chicago Shooting

When the Navy Yard shooting and Chicago shooting are entered into Grimes' formula, key differences are apparent. In fact, Grimes described the events as "not comparable" at all.

"For example, the Navy Yard's location alone would raise the newsworthiness of the violence there," Grimes explained. "It's a military base, with — supposedly — security checkpoints to protect the people and the place. It's in the national's capital, with an extremely high profile around the world. The shooting occurred at a workplace — where people have an expectation of safety. When that expectation of safety is violated, that makes all of us feel more vulnerable. And it's a rare occurrence '¦ creating a high quotient of newsworthiness. In addition, 12 people died in the Navy Yard shooting. That's a high death toll in a place of prominence and security."

Add it all up and it's clear the media was quite justified in lending the Navy Yard shooting extensive coverage. Few dispute that.

But why didn't the Chicago park shooting receive equal coverage? For starters, nobody died.

"Wounding is quite different from killing," Grimes writes. "It's terrible, yes. But it's not as terrible as killing, is it? And sadly, gang-related violence is less rare than work-place violence. That comparative rarity affects the comparative newsworthiness too."

A politically incorrect question was then posed to Grimes: Is race a factor in how the media defines a national story? For instance, the 3-year-old victim of the Chicago shooting was African-American — what if he'd been white?

"Race, like class and gender, can play a role — often because those factors reflect the interests of the audience of a particular information outlet," Grimes explained.

Therefore, stories involving a minority member of a particular news audience are somewhat less newsworthy. But far more powerful variables affected coverage of the Navy Yard and Chicago shootings. Principally, the Navy Yard shooting was a rare event that occurred at a prominent location and resulted in 13 deaths. The Chicago shooting was an unfortunately common, gang-related event in the city's South Side that killed no one.

So, the national media's differing coverage only made sense. This website has occasionally questioned the integrity of certain journalists; however, bloggers or social media heads using these two shootings to argue journalistic hypocrisy or advance a conspiracy theory would be wise to take a deep breath and focus on another issue. Coverage of the Navy Yard and Chicago shootings differed because the events themselves were very different.

Why Coverage Ties to Politics

This basic understanding of how the media defines a newsworthy story is essential, as political agendas are so often tied to the news cycle. Congress long ago learned the advantage of the "policy window" — a period of time, often following a major news event, in which there is greater likelihood of passing policies or legislative proposals.

Consider any high-profile tragedy: Emotions run high, everyone wants to respond quickly in a manner that will prevent future tragedies, and sometimes in our haste, laws are pushed through during this "policy window" that wouldn't otherwise have passed. Sometimes the new law may have prevented the tragedy, and other times it wouldn't have. The point is, it's human nature to want to feel that we have "done something" following a traumatic event.

You may find it annoying or insensitive when Feinstein proposes gun control in the immediate wake of a shooting. But she's only doing what all savvy politicians do: they take advantage of policy windows. Therefore, when a shooting makes national news, we can almost always expect a push for gun control.

Defining "The Media"

The issue of defining a national news story is further clouded by the various types of modern media, from television and radio to newspapers, magazines and bloggers — none of which are immune to outlets lacking a commitment to impartial, accurate journalism. Grimes was quick to point out that I used "the media" as a sweeping term during our discussion, when in fact there is great variation.

"There are huge differences among the different organizations and people in 'the media," Grimes says. "A cable TV talk show with an ideological bent or with an entertainment focus will often define 'national tragedy' much differently than, say, The New York Times or CNN's real news shows. The cable TV talk show is catering to a particular audience for which a certain kind of 'tragedy' will have appeal or interest."

This explains why certain outlets will occasionally cover a topic with great vigor while others pass. Why, then, do events like the Navy Yard shooting receive such universal, seemingly non stop media interest?

"News organizations share the 'news values' or 'news factors,' so many would cover the same events simply because of those professional judgments," Grimes said. "But competition and audience interest can also pressure even professional news organizations to go wall-to-wall or give much more coverage than events would ordinarily warrant. If, for example, a talk show gins up its activist audience about a topic, those audience members often begin to pressure other information outlets — and then the coverage snowballs."

One would think that a greater diversity of news outlets would equate to more stories and better opportunities for in-depth reporting. But, Grimes said, the interaction between new and old media isn't always healthy. As media outlets fight for a share of the audience, they can do so at the expense of good journalism.

"I blame much of the over-coverage for some events — like Natalee Holloway's disappearance — on the fragmentation of the audience across so many outlets," Grimes said. "TV, especially, is trying to reassemble a 'mass' audience with emotional, hypnotic, repetitive coverage. I think that's a serious failure of our fragmented information world."

What does Grimes say we can do to prevent such sensationalized journalism?

"If the audience didn't tune in, such things would be less likely to happen."

So there we have it. As consumers of media, we need to realize when our attention is targeted and be ready to investigate 'national tragedies' beyond the stories we're spoon-fed from the mass media.

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