I was sitting in a north loop coffee shop when I heard the news about the school shooting in Connecticut. “A lone gunman,” the reporter announced, “killed 26 people at an elementary school–including at least 18 children.” The news was shocking and heart-wrenching, and people in the coffee shop were visibly upset. Yet listening to the reactions of the individuals, I could not help but reflect on the role the media played in their understanding and reactions.
- “Public schools aren’t safe, it wouldn’t happen at a well managed charter school.”
- “It’s not safe to live here anymore.”
- “This is absolutely about poverty—the shooter had no hope for the future.”
- “Youth are so angry and irresponsible, where is the good parenting?”
I heard these comments in Chicago—a city with more media outlets than most, and yet those I overheard in that coffee shop demonstrated no significantly greater ability to connect this horrible loss of life to the weak gun control laws that allowed the suspected shooter to buy the assault weapons he used to kill children, teachers, and members of his own family.
Why the disconnect between the social problem of mass shootings and policy solutions that might make us all safer? Some believe it is because the over-saturation of opinion-based news on the Internet, combined with the increasing relaxation of media ownership rules, shrink the number of official voices whose job it is to report accurately.
In fact, right now, the Federal Communications Commission is considering further relaxing media ownership rules, which would allow Rupert Murdoch to expand his News Corp’s journalism empire by buying The Chicago Tribune—the dominant paper in the same city where he already owns TV stations. The result would be an inevitable limiting of both ownership and coverage.
When our children are suffering on both sides of assault weapons, it is a moral failure to deny us the most diverse media possible.
The health and safety of our communities rely on a diverse media. Media portrayals are part of a complex interplay of opinion, fact, credibility and conventional wisdom that helps to construct our worldview, and give rise to the rules that we live by. In a city like Chicago, where much of the media coverage demonizes public education, warns of a youth violence epidemic, and links poverty to homicide it’s not surprising that the average person would come to these conclusions, despite the fact that mass shootings are less likely to occur in urban centers, and are more linked to mental health and the unfettered availability of assault weapons
In the coming weeks the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary will be mourned and deconstructed publicly and privately. These conversations—particularly the public ones—will be marked by “competing ideas” of what happened and why. The answers will help to set an agenda, validate or invalidate a set of issues, and ultimately shape both public opinion and the character of local, state and federal laws and regulations related to gun violence. When too few people own too much media, its not only unhealthy, it creates a level of control over a public narrative and a collective memory that is incomplete, inaccurate and dangerous.
To the coffee shop patrons–public schools are not to blame, and charter schools are not the solution. Global judgments about parenting are not helpful—nor are they an appropriate touchstone for designing public policy. Poverty is a systemic and oppressive force—but the 16.4 million children who live in poverty are not potential “shooters.” And finally, media bias related to public safety should be interrogated in a thoughtful and contextualized way.
Along with others, my thoughts and condolences are with the many people who lost loved ones in today’s shooting. And as I reflect on President Obama’s call for us to take “meaningful action” I will be working to ensure that we have the healthy and robust media system we need—one that fosters a healthier and stronger democracy, and improves the quality of life for all.
At the Center for Media Justice we often say “the right to communication should belong to everyone.” As we move forward from today’s devastating news, we invite you to share your thoughts about the type of public messaging our country needs, and the ways in which we can use these messages to shape the kind of democracy that we both want and need.
Here are our ideas, what are yours?
- We are connected, our fates are linked. What happened at Sandy Brook Elementary is a horrible, preventable tragedy. Our hearts and prayers are with the victims, the survivors, and their families.
- This tragedy goes beyond partisan politics straight to the common sense policies we need to keep our children and communities safe.
- Government has a role to play in preventing these kinds of tragedies, both by controlling the sale of guns and by regulating and resourcing an expansive media diversity that allows for more than episodic coverage of such a horrible assault.