The Orlando nightclub tragedy, once again, lays open the pain and decidedly American-made product of senseless violence. Sadly, the loss of life, the deadliest mass shooting in the US, at a gay club in the Central Florida city may fall into the same cycle of malaise as the likes of Sandy Hook, Charleston, Columbine, Roseburg and San Bernadino — “terrible news”, “we’ve got to talk about this” and “something should be done.” Then, after heated discussions and attempted legislation, nothing truly meaningful happens.
The numbers should be sobering: 1,140 deaths due to mass shootings in 1,260 days, according to data from ShootingTracker in the Guardian.
It’s a bit reductive, but there are three kinds of stories happening all at once.
Yes, it’s a gun violence story. We’re seeing politicians rail on the distinctly American right to own guns, with Hillary Clinton and Senate Democrats thankfully renewing the conversation about banning assault weapons. After the attack, the New York Daily News “thanked” the National Rifle Association (NRA) for their continued opposition to an assault weapons ban.
Sure, it’s a terrorism story — though that line of thinking, and not to mitigate its importance, tends to be convenient for people at the moment. It stokes fear. The lens the public generally looks through as it relates to terrorism is geopolitical and belief-based. Someone with an “un-American”-sounding name? That’s gotta be a terrorist, right? As a “pure” definition, terrorism is designed to incite fear and intimidation, with the intention of achieving some kind of goal. As the reports come in, the gunman in Orlando appeared to be strongly against gay people. His callous act was an act of terror.
Absolutely this is a story about hate, specifically against the LGBT community — and possibly against the Latino community, as more than 90 per cent of the victims are of Hispanic descent. Florida’s Hispanic population is third largest in the country, with the US Census Bureau showing a Latino population of 24 per cent in the state and rising. “We’ve never really been, at least in recent history, the target of a terrorist attack,” Zoe Colon, director of the Hispanic Federation’s Chapter told The Washington Post. “Not to speculate that this was an attack on the Latino community, but to have been impacted to this magnitude, I don’t think we’ve ever seen that.”
Though the Hispanic community was hit hard, reports indicate that the shooter’s dislike for gay people may be the driving force. Homophobia, especially in the US, is an acute problem. We fancy ourselves tolerant, at least in certain quarters of the country, but the overwhelming, quiet hate that manifests itself in tragic moments like this is far more dangerous and has not been adequately taken on. A recently-published Guardian opinion piece is a good read and sheds some additional light on the subject.
As people in the media industry, the question as to what kind of story this actually is can be confounding. While emotions are raw and all manner of stories are flying quickly by at the moment, in the quest for clarity (and ratings), all three of these topics will cross over — and understandably so. However, when the cycle loses its initial momentum, what will we be talking about? What should we be talking about?
Where should this story go?
The core of this story is about hate. Yes, terrorism has hate as its bedfellow, but the Orlando crisis goes much deeper, it seems, and we may find that the core of this is about hate and hate crimes. It could also be an important “jumping off” point for the LGBT community where, despite the obvious pain and loss, a sense of solidarity could galvanize the movement. This certainly, in no way, is meant to downplay or mitigate all of the stories in the current orbit, especially gun safety or terrorism, but down the immediate path, past the first, frenetic phase of this cycle, there may opportunity for deeper conversation that could, hopefully, begin the process of action.
Dean Mundy, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon (UO) School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Oregon, sees that as a distinct possibility, though it will take a concerted effort.
“I think there’s a lot of power in returning to this story in, say three weeks,” noted Mundy. “One of my biggest frustrations when it comes to covering this kind of crisis is that there is all kinds of noise right now where everybody wants to have the right angle, to cover it and capture the moment — and to be the voice of the moment. I think that's important. I think all types of media have a responsibility to do that in the moment, but I think there's a greater responsibility, in my perspective, to come back to the story in three weeks. There's a lot of great potential in making that the moment. I would really admire a media outlet that came back to Orlando and did the same kind of coverage that we're talking about three weeks from now.”
The main reason for the stretch of time would be to take the conversation to the next level. In the usual order of coverage, the general format is where we are now, memorization (which Mundy says is also very important) and then moving on to the next thing.
Though it’s a different situation altogether, something like the Snowden episode, where initial shock made way for continuous conversation and momentum, would be a more desirable outcome. Timing may actually be beneficial, with the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, considered a watershed moment and turning point of the decades-old gay liberation movement and modern fight for LGBT rights that started on June 28th and 29th, 1969.
“I think it’s an important moment and outlets will probably use it to revisit what happened in Orlando,” noted Mundy, who advocates for LGBT rights on a state level. “There’s potential in that sinking in more than being part of the noise right now.”
In order to have a more meaningful conversation, it’s important to understand the dynamics at play within the community itself. Pride celebrations are a direct byproduct of Stonewall and are generally uplifting and positive. The lens most look through is what the public sees, but the gay community is, as Mundy puts it “easily invisible.” For decades, the gay community has been told not to speak up or to be too visible. Even in the current cycle of public proclamations of dismay, conservative politicians appear to the focused on the “terrorism” story, not mentioning the LGBT community, which is so badly shaken.
“In that regard, that's a symbolic silencing of the community, too,” said Mundy. “There are all these different aspects of silencing, and how can we turn that around; how can we make sure we have the right kind of visibility and give the right kind of voice for all the different aspects of this issue, from gun safety to the LGBT community to terrorism?”
Additionally, the LGBT community doesn’t have many of the same protections as other minorities in the US. Despite establishing the constitutional right to same-sex marriage by the US Supreme Court, only 19 states and Washington DC have laws to prevent LGBT Americans from being discriminated against by employers — not to mention being denied housing, hotels or other services.
“This whole idea of Pride, and June being a month to celebrate Pride, is, on one hand, an opportunity to really, as a community, speak up, when we've been told in other parts of our lives everywhere to not speak up, to not be visible,” said Mundy. “And then, on the other hand, to confront that risk of, ‘I'm going to speak up’.”
Where Mundy and most people see a logjam in progress is in the news cycle itself. The sea of sameness in every crisis appears to play on the same loop, over and over again — the same talking points and pablum spouted from channel to channel, page to page. Anecdotally, there may be an opening for something more.
“What I've seen on Twitter and the media, a little bit more this time, which I've been a little encouraged about, are people saying, ‘I'm so tired of the same talking points. I'm tired of, anywhere from journalists to politicians, toeing the line in terms of messaging.’ People wanting to hear a little bit more of call to action,” said Mundy. “That gets back to the question of objectivity, but I've seen a lot more calls like, ‘I’m so tired of the 'we are all Orlando, let's pray for them,' let's get beyond that and really do something.’”
The tone, coming from the LGBT community and organizations, mirrors the frustration, but a steady hand and cooler heads often prevail — the long view — despite the understandable anger.
“What always amazes me in my interviews and conversations with advocacy leaders and the heads of state level and local groups is their ability to take a step back to say, ‘We need to have a responsible conversation.’ Yes, we're angry and we can convey that we're angry, but we can do it in a responsible way where we're not going to alienate different groups so we can't even have that conversation," said Mundy. "We have to be able to figure out a way to show our anger, but at the same time get in there and have a productive conversation.”
True, every reporter and outlet will see things differently but, if the role of media is to tell the right stories and engender the public’s trust responsibly, then this could be an ample opportunity to tell the full, continual story, instead of the small bites we’re so accustomed to.
“I think it's the media's responsibility to do that for the public,” said Mundy. “I think that there's a risk in seeing like this is an isolated thing, really focusing on this one moment. I think painting that bigger picture of what we can learn over time, I think it helps educate and the media can help with when it comes to this.”
The challenge (and responsibility) of covering mass shootings
Much like the cycle of news, an almost ritualistic endeavor, reporting events like these present myriad thoughts and conflict. Reporters go into a scene of carnage, despair and pain with a job to do. The mechanics of the job are easy to understand: get there fast, talk to as many people as possible and go into it with the best of intentions to be a professional journalist of service to the community and public. However, deserved or not, the media can become the villains.
Lori Shontz, a highly-experienced journalism instructor at UO, learned about the pushback from another mass shooting close to home, at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon where eight students and an assistant professor lost their lives on October 1, 2015. Shontz is doing research, specifically on the reporters who covered the tragedy, to unearth insight into how it was covered and where there may be opportunities to improve. She and her UO colleague, assistant professor Nicole Dahmen, have conducted in-depth interviews with 19 reporters and the results will be released in August.
“Nicole and I thought it would be interesting to tell the story to the people who cover this event. We wanted to learn how you cover it,” said Shontz, a Pittsburgh native who worked in newsrooms throughout her career in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Miami. “We need to truly understand what's happening in communities and whose voices are being heard and can we amplify those voices and what do we have to know that we don't know.”
In the case of Roseburg, media attention was the last thing that the community felt was necessary.
“What was very striking to me as a former reporter on this research was that all of the reporters that we spoke with talked about being there for the community and wanting to honor the victims, give publicity to the heroes that helped and to the community that was pulling together,” said Shontz, who is receiving funding from the Agora Center at the UO Turnbull Center in Portland, with the intention taking the research, and what was learned in Roseburg, to develop programs for both journalism schools and professional newsrooms to better prepare journalsists to cover mass tragedies. “They really thought they were doing a public service and that's how I was, always, as a full time journalist, as well. Yet the community of Roseburg wanted them to go away. They didn't want the media there. They felt very used by the media, they felt exploited in some cases — so there's a disconnect there. I want to understand that disconnect. This is news, it's a matter of public safety, it's a matter of what are our communities doing, they're covering that and that's how it should be, but do we need to do it differently?”
Shontz and Dahmen are looking at all angles — where the story is played, how it’s played, the images used, the need to repeatedly show images of a shooter over and over again. There’s also the issue of meaning with Shontz pointing out that CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in his coverage, not mentioning the shooter’s name or using his image in his reporting.
“I don't know all the answers and obviously I'm a journalist,” noted Shontz. “I don't withhold news, I don't withhold facts but is there harm being done?”
Shontz brought up the coverage of suicides, where guidelines and best practices have been developed for professional and citizen journalists to help avoid copycat suicides. According to more than 50 research studies, “certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.” Could the spirit of those guidelines be helpful in avoiding the perceived glamorization of mass shootings?
“This is one of the questions that we need to ask,” said Shontz. “What responsibility does the media have here? One of the things the media does so well and one of our very important roles is to ask questions of people in power and to hold people in power accountable. I think we also need to ask questions of ourselves as an institution and hold ourselves accountable. What do we do well, what can we do better? Is there anything we should not be doing, are we adding to a problem? I don't know the answers but I think those are very, very important questions to ask.”
In the fast-paced news cycles that dominate our world, and with shrinking newsroom budgets and staffs, the chase for the next story is always on and the human side of being a reporter can take its toll. In the case of those covering Roseburg, the mental costs were high, but the importance of the work was evident.
“All of the reporters were emotionally exhausted from covering this. All of the reporters worked very, very hard and talked about trying to be as respectful as they could to the community, to families of victims, to the survivors of the shooting,” said Shontz. “The amount of work they put in, the amount of thought they put in and amount that they cared about the job they were doing was very, very evident with everyone we spoke to. In a way, it can make you feel good about journalism because these are people who are out there doing the very best they can and really believing in the role that they have in society — that they're not just doing a job, they're doing something that matters.”
By their very nature, reporters work on a level of “auto-pilot,” going into “reporter mode” when a story breaks and evolves. As Shontz put it, “you don't wake up and go to work thinking I might have to cover a mass shooting today.” After the tragedy in Roseburg had settled, and Poynter, a Florida non-profit school for journalism and a leader in journalistic integrity, published an article around the work of UO’s School of Journalism and Communication, Shontz began receiving emails from local media.
“I had a couple of emails after that,” recalled Shontz. “A news producer at a television station and some people we hadn't talked to said ‘I would love to talk to you about this, it's been bothering me ever since. I want to know what I could have done better’.”
The jury is still out on how all of this will play out in Orlando, with plenty of questions that demand answers. What stories will be told? Which stories will be told well? How will the analysis and introspection within the industry manifest itself?
More bluntly, what can and should reporters do to “get it right” this time?
“I would say two things. First of all, trust your instincts,” said Shontz. “I tell students all the time, you're still human. You're human first, you're a journalist second. If something bothers you, if it doesn't feel right, if it doesn't feel respectful, if it feels like the wrong way to go, trust in that. The second thing I would say for the journalist, specifically, is to take care of themselves and take some time. When you're off the 24/7 news cycle, because it will slow down eventually— keep your adrenalin up now, but when you do, take some time to think about what you did and why. I think that reflecting on what you do, what you did well, what you could have done better and think about what it all means. You can't do that on deadline, I know, but I do think that that is an important thing, that you should give yourself the space to think about it.”