News Coverage of the VA tech Shooting


News Coverage of the VA tech Shooting


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Topics like these are always hard to approach. For some, the event holds particular weight, either because of their relationship with the victims, with the assailant, with the location where it takes place, or because of the events relationship with another similar incident.

The coverage of these events is usually the same. To provide the viewer with context- there is footage of the location from every possible angle, there are reporter stand-ups near the location providing a feeling of being well informed by the people "on the scene", there is video from security cams or other sources that allow an inside view of the event or of the lead up to it, and there is commentary, lots of commentary.

In these ways, as is the case with much of news today, the coverage of such events can be compared to the coverage of a sporting event: Heavy on filler, and light on actual content. As of today, it's been almost a week since the incident, and coverage of the shooting takes up a giant share of the programming schedules of networks. With less that four or five (if that) big stories running at the same time, it is in the forefront of the news audiences mind.

Like most tragedies, answers are what are sought after most, that and blame. And this is what takes up most of the coverage. There are investigations into the profile of the assailant, interviews by "experts" in the field, with witnesses, with family, with victims of other similar tragedies, with law enforcement, with neighbors, ad <b>nauseam</b>.

We watch all of this and assume that somehow there can be meaning found once all the pieces are known. That if enough time is spent on it, answers will be found, that proper blame will be placed, justice will be served. This is a false hope.

Tragedies like these happen all the time. Not all of them are covered. Not all of them are given the weight that The Virginia Tech Shooting has been given. This is not to belittle the severity of the situation, nor is it to undermine the pain that resonates from the news of such an event, or the loss of the survivors. What should be looked at however is how these events are covered in the news, and how it affects our understanding of them as a viewer.

The news media does a great job of drawing connections between events in order to apply meaning. This event is connected with the Columbine shooting, as it is also a mass shooting in a school. Connections are drawn between the fear of terrorism, and the fear of an unexpected terror. The words "Terror", and "Terrorist" are thrown around wantonly. Particular weight is given to the assailant&#39;s status as an American, drawing further connections to the fears of an attack by a foreigner. It is put into the temporal context as being "the deadliest shooting in American History" or it is given by some news agencies even more gravity by being called a "Massacre", a "deadly rampage". What does it mean to be the "Deadliest", is the loss of ten victims more profound then thirty, or one? How many victims are required for it to be counted as a massacre? Are there particular characteristics that make a shooting a rampage, instead of a methodical series of executions? There is no litmus test for tragedy outside of personal experience.

These titles are nothing more than advertising slogans and marketing catch phrases. They are designed to draw the audience in, to get them to pay closer attention to the coverage of one report over another, to boost viewer-ship and ratings. To help fill this content, the lions share of programming time is given to interviews with the "experts", the press conference, and news releases after the fact. Officials stand in front of a dozen microphones twice a day, stating that they have "no further information at this time" and "those questions can&#39;t be answered during an ongoing investigation". But some news outlets are quick to point fingers. To cast blame. Somehow talk show celebrities like Dr. Phil are considered experts into the mind of a killer by CNN, and is constantly referred to in order to gain insight into how this could happen, when in reality his role is one of familiarity. Dr. Phil is placed in front of the camera to draw in the viewer ship of his entire constituency. For countless American viewers, he is a trusted face that could help bring meaning to such an event.

Witnesses are interviewed hours after the event. "How does it feel to be one of the only survivors?", "How did you escape?", "How does this affect you? These questions, while apparently directed to the witness, are really directed to the audience placing themselves in the survivor&#39;s shoes. "How would I handle this?" is the question. How can I learn from this? The reporter leans in and asks the obvious- "have you talked to anybody about this yet, are you seeking professional help?" Obviously not yet, they are in front of the camera. They are prevented from recovery so that the audience can gain catharsis and false closure instead.

What is missed in all this is that we are all being exploited in some way in order to boost ratings and sell advertising space. The coverage is excessive, bordering on irresponsible. People are pulled out of the woodwork, their lives interrupted so that we can know what it was like to be in elementary school with someone who grows up to be a killer. We see a mother of a child who murdered dozens and then killed himself, and wonder why she is stunned and despondent. We "talk" to "experts" who say this is a gun control issue, that everyone should be armed. We hear from security experts who say it&#39;s because of a lack of police and security presence, and other similar people who are pushing their own agenda, not helping to inform on the subject.

The audience wants to know what is happening out there. They want to know when they should be legitimately worried about something, and this is what they get instead; hyperbole, speculation, grandstanding and sensationalism.

One particular interview strikes a nerve. A criminologist was being interviewed on a major network, and was asked how this could happen. Is it video game violence, easy access to guns, copycat crimes, bad parenting? The criminologist dismissed these easy scapegoats and answered in the only rational way anyone could. He said, that it is a combination of factors. Not every one is predisposed to criminal behavior like this, but under the wrong conditions an unstable mind can be pushed to commit horrendous things.

The real problem is that the system is such that someone this unstable could slip through the cracks and not get the care and attention that they need to heal. The problem is the focus on violence in media after the fact, not before it happens. The problem is a society who would sooner cast blame on others than take care of their own, or that would blame lax immigration laws that would allow for someone like this to get into the country, instead of diligently pushing for a system where those with emotional and mental problems get help. But ultimately the problem is that no real meaning can be found in a situation like this. No matter how many laws are in place, or police are around, or security checkpoints we have, a troubled mind left unchecked, will find a way to follow through with their plan. The news agencies and the commentators will be standing by, ready to add their opinion to the pile, without ever providing solutions to the core societal problems that allow tragedies to unfold. The sound-bytes will search for meaning in a meaningless action. The viewer will tune in to try and add meaning to their understanding of the situation, drawing from the only resources that they have. The advertisers will reap the rewards of our attention.

Change must take place in the way these types of things are covered in the news so that people can help to identify those that need our help before extremes of desperation are reached. A change in the way we look at tragedy must take place before meaning can be found. Tragedy and our fear of it must not be exploited for the profit by the news. We as the audience must demand more than empty rhetoric and facile coverage and questioning, bold red headlines and somber musical montages of mourners. We must demand more, of ourselves and of the news.

Posted by nickdigital2.0 at 5:01 PM


Original Source: <a href=""></a>

Licensed under a <a href="">Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License</a>.


Nicholas Whitaker




Brent Jesiek


Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License




Nicholas Whitaker, “News Coverage of the VA tech Shooting,” The April 16 Archive, accessed May 18, 2024,