NewsTrack Week 5/6

We skipped a week in posting, so this week’s (long) NewsTrack is going to serve double duty.

This week, I’d like to talk about how The Seattle Times covered Friday’s shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck high school in Marysville, WA.

Screenshot of an image from a Times photo gallery. Balloons bearing victims' names tied to the fence surrounding Marysville-Pilchuck High School

Screenshot of a Times photo gallery. Balloons bearing victims’ names were tied to the fence surrounding Marysville-Pilchuck High School in the aftermath of Friday’s shooting

If you read the linked article, it tells you that Friday morning, a popular freshman student walked into his school cafeteria and pulled a gun on a table of his friends and family. He shot all five of them in the head, killing one, before turning the gun on himself. The four surviving victims remain in critical condition at a nearby hospital.

This information is devastating. My heart breaks for those families grieving their children and for those still hoping for good news. I can only imagine what the Marysville community is going through right now.

But there are a couple reasons why I want to discuss this. First of all, Marysville is only 45 minutes north of my hometown. This incident quite literally hit close to home. That alone makes this shooting worth discussing.

But the second reason I want to discuss this is because it feels like school shootings are happening at an alarmingly regular rate. This graphic pinpoints the locations of the 67 school shootings that have happened since Sandy Hook in December 2012. That’s an unbelievable number. As these shootings become commonplace, our media coverage of them seems to follow a pattern: the shooting (and shooter) is romanticized, and then the story is swept away after initiating another (redundant) discussion of gun control. Just look at the coverage of the school shootings in Danvers, MA and Sparks, NV.

To me, this cycle of outrage-to-indifference almost trivializes the fact that a tragedy has taken place. Each shooting becomes just another opportunity for the media to draw in audiences with a sob story and for the public to blame guns and violent video games for these shooters’ actions. I hope this doesn’t seem like too much of a generalization (and yes, I understand that this post also draws out the incident); I just think that by covering these shootings in a formulaic fashion we forget that there are families and communities actually affected by the tragedies. With this in mind, I want to discuss how The Seattle Times has so far reported this shooting and what I think of their approach.

Screenshot of one of the shooting articles

Screenshot of the most recent article about Friday’s shooting. Notice that the majority of the trending articles (right) are shooting-related.

Since Friday, the Times website has provided comprehensive coverage of the incident. Today, the home page is still mostly dedicated to coverage of the shooting. That and the Seahawks, at least. The majority of the featured articles are shooting-related and the top-viewed photo gallery documents the aftermath of the incident. An update also informs readers of the status of the victims: 3 serious, 1 critical.

The first full story I found about the shooting was published at 11:06 Friday morning (it’s the first version of the article linked at the top of this post). It’s more extensive than just a hard news report; it’s a roughly 1,300 word article articulating the situation with details, quotes, and personal stories. The article was much more fact than editorializing, which is how I think a piece of this nature should be written. This article was ultimately well done. Only a fraction of the content seemed unnecessary. I found the analysis of the shooter’s Twitter account and commentary on the high school’s mental-health services to be little more than speculation, but the article was otherwise well reported.

The Times’ subsequent stories provide more information about the shooter and how the Marysville community is responding to the incident. The Times even has a post about how reports from the scene first unfolded. These follow-up articles are where coverage becomes more nuanced.

Screenshot of an article about the incident providing links to other shooting-related articles

Screenshot of a Times article about the incident providing links to other shooting-related articles

Most articles spoke of the community coming together, like the report of football rival Oak Harbor High School offering Marysville first place in the game that would have taken place that night. One offered tips to parents on how to speak to their children about school shootings while another reported on the gun control debate initiated by the incident. I thought these articles handled their sensitive subject well. They expanded on the situation without capitalizing on the drama of the shooting itself, which I think is admirable (especially when talking about gun control). Again, the Times favored straightforward reporting over shock and awe.

Editorials about things like this are tricky to venture into. The two opinion pieces I read were interesting because they were less sensitive than I expected (considering the neutrality of the other follow-up articles). One bluntly echoed my views about the trivialization of the tragedy, while the other was well-meaning but perhaps guilty of being “too soon.” Both pieces comment on how normal these violent incidents are becoming. The first discusses this “gun-crazy” land and how we ultimately shrug these shootings off; “…eventually we change the channel, until the next [shooting] comes walking in somebody else’s door,” it says. True? Probably. Blunt? Maybe too much so. The second is a call-to-action that I found a bit distasteful just because I believe people should be allowed time to grieve before being spurred to reform. “Amid the memorials for the lost lives and prayers for the wounded students, we must catalyze the grief and anger in a search for answers that rebind the community. That resolve might lead to a reassessment of school safety, of bullying prevention or to our nation’s easy access to firearms,” it says. I do agree with the statements, but I think this piece would have been better off being posted later in the week.

What I like most about the Times coverage is save for this article and that article, the focus has been on the incident instead of the shooter. If you look at coverage of other school shootings, a huge media storm gets made about the perpetrator (i.e. Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, etc). To me, this almost glorifies the shooter. When this much attention is paid to these individuals, they become something like celebrities. That really troubles me. A good example of this is the media coverage of Elliot Rodger, the man responsible for May’s UC Santa Barbara shooting.

Screenshot of the LA Times article providing a transcript of UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger's animosity-filled last words

Screenshot of an LA Times article providing a transcript of UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger’s animosity-filled last words

Rodger published a goodbye video on his YouTube channel blaming women for making him suffer his whole life and promising to annihilate the women of UCSB as punishment. Other similarly misogynistic videos and writing quickly surfaced and were strung through the media for the public to see. The New York Times, Slate, Al Jazeera, and countless other publications all dissected Rodger’s twisted words. An LA Times article made note of this intense focus, quoting a friend of the victim saying, “It makes me sick seeing those videos over and over again…By continuously showing the videos and stuff, you’re putting the limelight on him and not the people he killed…I want to remember [my friend].”

By analyzing and sharing Rodger’s messages, the media became a mouthpiece for his hate-filled words. If they had just let his videos and writing lie dormant, perhaps the public could have been spared that introduction to hatred.

Oh man. I think this is all I can say for now. I feel emotionally drained just writing about these tragedies. Oh, my heart aches for those families who will never get to see their children again.

So I’m just going to end this with praise for the The Seattle Times for not capitalizing on the tragedy of Friday’s shooting. Their coverage was as impartial and straightforward as possible, and I think respectful of those impacted by the incident. There were a couple slips in speculation and editorializing, but I was overall impressed with how the publication presented information to the public. This professionalism is typical of the Times; they displayed similar tact in their coverage of June’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Tonight, my thoughts lie with those of the Marysville community; may they all find peace and comfort in these difficult times.

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