In light of the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., people across the nation are still struggling with how best to cope with the devastating tragedy. From prayer vigils to calls for political reform, people have come up with a variety of solutions, but the question remains what is the best way to both honor and respect the victims while discussing strategies to prevent such future attacks? Regardless of one's stance on gun control or mental illness, this tragedy affects every member of the national community in some way. Shootings are chilling because nobody is safe not even children.
As people struggle to react, the media must also find the proper way to report such a delicate story. Regardless of the underlying ethics of giving the media such immense power, the tone of media coverage heavily dictates national opinion. While most coverage of the tragedy itself is respectful and informative, there is a small portion of news stories that serves to fuel and perpetuate a twisted interest in the killer himself. Where is he from? Who is he? What is his family like? Articles that aim to answer questions like this give the killer exactly what he wants fame and undermines the evil of the incident.
Many pro-gun supporters such as conservative strategist Grover Norquist strongly condemned calls for gun control. "We have got to calm down and not take tragedies like this, crimes like this, and use them for political purposes," Norquist said. This backlash under the guise of being respectful and tasteful actually masks a fear of confronting the nation's most pressing issues. Oddly, this expectation of tact seems to be absent when it comes to sensationalist stories about Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza. This conventional sensitivity sadly prevents people from fully addressing the politics at the heart of tragedies involving mental illness and, especially, gun control, but it also prevents the media from indulging in the nation's perverse fascination with the killer.
After the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., film critic Roger Ebert wrote an editorial for The New York Times criticizing the media for its shameless obsession with the shooter, James Holmes. "I don't know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news," Ebert wrote. He argued that the media gives shooters the exact notoriety and fame that they crave, as most killers become household names. Ebert urged the public to address the root problems behind the issue. Instead of focusing on the killer's identity, his past, family, motives and so on, the victims and the media should focus on the underlying causes, such as the lack of proper mental health care and the accessibility of assault weapons.
We can talk about Holmes or Lanza as minor celebrities, men so horrible that a careful investigation into their histories and psyches must be launched, but it only elevates them to the notoriety they desire. This media obsession with the killer plays right into the hands of other potential shooters. Not only is this disrespectful to the victims of school shootings, whose names are often forgotten long before that of the shooter, but it also is counterproductive. Realistically, the only way to enact permanent change is to foster political dialogues regardless of the taboo of "politicizing" a tragedy.
If the media focused on the victims and the controversies regarding mental health and gun control as opposed to emphasizing the killer and his backstory, not only would more intelligent dialogue result, but a clear message would also be sent to other shooters that their plan would not get them the national infamy they may desire. When major media outlets accidentally pander to the murderer by fact-mongering for any sort of particularly salacious piece of information about his tumultuous family life, recent job loss or divorce, they throw the real issues to the wayside. The proper way to honor the victims would be to actually have the gumption to address these inflammatory political conflicts that are inseparable from cause of these national tragedies. Trying to enact permanent change that could prevent these shootings is not disrespectful in fact, it is more disrespectful to ignore these issues.