Shootings, Race, and the Media

August 25th, 2012

Yesterday there was a shooting outside the Empire State Building. The shooter killed one victim. The police returned fire, and killed the shooter, and wounded several other bystanders in a volley of fire. The story has been plastered all over the news, with countless articles and reports about this shooting. This shooting is a tragedy, and my sympathies go to the victims and their families.

But, if I may look at this situation a bit more broadly, why has this tragedy, and not countless other recent shootings where far more people were murdered, dominated the news cycle?

Ian Millhiser recounts that on Thursday night, 19 people were shot in Thursday night in Chicago. On Friday night in Chicago, another 13 were shot, including 4 murders. I bet you didn’t hear about any of these cold-blooded crimes.

As Ian noted, “these events received only a tiny fraction of the wall to wall media coverage surrounding the Empire State Building shooting.” Why is this? Ian suggests that the media can more readily identify with a shooting near the Empire State Building, a very affluent area, than shootings in poor neighborhoods, populated mostly by minorities:

It is understandable that the editors and top producers who decide which news events receive media coverage and which ones are largely ignored would find the Empire State Building shooting particularly jarring. Top news editors are fairly affluent, and this morning’s shooting is a reminder that no one is safe from gun violence, regardless of how privileged their lives may be. But it is no less a tragedy when someone closer to the margins of society is the victim of such violence than it is when violence intrudes into the fortresses of the fortunate. The victims of last night’s Chicago shootings should not be ignored simply because top news editors might find it more difficult to identify with them.

For some time, I have been very interested in media reactions to shootings. Why is it that certain tragedies that involve a loss of life captivate the public attention–such as the shootings at the Empire State Building, in Aurora, Colorado, or on universities campuses–while others–such as the shootings in Chicago–do not.

If I may put on my critical race theory hat for a moment (as I peel off my form-fitting libertarian tinfoil hat), I think Ian is on to something.

Reactions to tragedies in the media seem to be proportional to whether others (the media, and the public) can empathize with the victims. It is very easy to empathize with victims in a movie theater, because many people go to movies. In fact, after the shooting in Aurora, many were afraid to go to movie theaters. The Dark Knight even took a hit at the box office because people feared attending that movie in particular.

It is very easy to empathize with victims on a University campus, as many people go to college (or if they don’t, they probably know someone who did go to college). Even when the shooting isn’t really even on campus, but adjacent to it (such as the recent shooting at Texas A&M), the media still goes into full alert. (Tragically, I learned about that shooting moments before my first class. Many of my students are Aggies. I made an announcement when class started. What a way to start, huh).

If someone is shot outside the Empire State Building–one of the most iconic sites in the world–people can relate. “Wow, I want to go visit New York. I would have for that to happen to me.” Most media organizations have their headquarters within blocks of 34th street.

But, if the shooting happened about 100 blocks north of 34th Street–one person shoots another over a feud–would there be any media attention? What if five people where shot at a basketball tournament on 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Blvd? I hadn’t heard of this story, but a quick search revealed it.

In future posts, I will delve into what I think is the deeper question. What is a “shooting,” at least insofar as it relates to the popular conception of a shooting that generates mass attention? It can’t simply occurs when a person fires a gun and strikes another, as that happens all the time. I think the term “shooting” focuses more on the victim of the crime, and where it takes place. Specifically, I think firing a gun becomes a “shooting” when it makes other think, “wow that could happen to me.”

Another question, is what characteristics of a shooting create the media sensation that we see with shootings at schools and in offices and in movie theaters, but not in, for example, the South Side of Chicago.

This ties in to my research about Black Swan responses to tragedies. Before understanding how people calculate responses, we must first understand what kinds of tragedies (and what kind of “shootings”) trigger these reactions. I am still thinking it through.

Another element that I will develop further is how those in favor of promoting gun-control legislation are keenly awawre of what makes a mass-response-inducing-shooting, and gin up support from these tragedies. The NRA and others are just as bad through their detached responses after these tragedies (this Onion piece the day after the shooting in Aurora, titled, “NRA: ‘Please Try To Remember All The Wonderful Things Guns Do For Us Every Day,'” sums it up nicely).

Over a month ago I wrote a post titled “Dark Knight and Black Swan” about the shootings in Aurora. Eventually I will finish that post. The shooting at the Empire State Building, and Ian’s post, helped to crystalize some of my thinking.

This is a very difficult topic to talk about, especially when the tragedy is still fresh in our minds. I hope my tone was respectful, and thoughtful.