Two Shooting Tragedies: Two Different Media Takes

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Robin Barton

On July 20 James Holmes entered a movie theatre in Aurora, CO, that was showing a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Using various weapons, Holmes fired at the crowd, ultimately killing 12 people and injuring 58 others before he was arrested.

Just over two weeks later, on August 5, Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old Army veteran, entered a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI during services and fired a gun at the worshippers. He killed six people and injured three before turning the gun on himself.

Two mass shootings in public places within a month. Yet the media coverage of each couldn’t have been more different.

Major media outlets, both TV and print, sent reporters to Colorado for days after the shootings. TV news shows did special reports from Aurora, pre-empting other planned programming. Round-the-clock coverage was the norm for this tragedy.

In contrast, the media response to the Oak Creek shootings was more muted.

Yes, the press reported on the tragedy and its immediate aftermath. But this event didn’t seem to generate the same media fervor the Aurora shootings did.

In fact, in the weeks since the Sikh temple shootings, some journalists have questioned the disparity of coverage of these similar events.

For example, Riddhi Shah, an Indian-born reporter for the Huffington Post, wondered why the media didn’t seem to care very much about the Oak Creek shootings. She questioned the role that race and religion may have played in this apparent lack of interest, asking,

“What if, instead of a white supremacist, the attacker had been a Muslim fundamentalist, and the place of worship a synagogue or a church?,” she wrote.

Shah’s own race and religion may shape her perspective of the media coverage of these events. But she wasn’t the only one criticizing how the press handled each tragedy.

Dylan Byers, a reporter for Politico, who is white, was also critical of the TV coverage of the Oak Creek shootings. He observed that, with the exception of CNN, the major TV networks didn’t send their anchors to Wisconsin and gave significantly less coverage to this event.

Shah and Byers were hardly alone in raising these concerns.

Jeneba Ghatt commented on Politc365 that despite the fact that the temple shootings were an “example of domestic terrorism,” the news outlets “barely found the incident worthy of interrupting regularly scheduled broadcasts.”

On Twitter, blogs and many websites, “the difference in intensity of coverage between Aurora and Oak Creek seems to me close to an order of magnitude,” observed Robert Wright, senior editor at The Atlantic.

So the question is why were similar events covered by the media so differently?

One could argue that although both events involved mass shootings, the differences between the tragedies explain the disparity in coverage. For example, more people were killed and injured in the Aurora shootings, many of whom were young.

In addition, Holmes lived after the Aurora shootings, meaning there were court proceedings, the search of his booby-trapped apartment and other related events to still cover. But Page killed himself, so there were no subsequent official events on which to report.

And the unusual facts surrounding the Aurora shootings also added to the media attention. Holmes struck during midnight screenings of a long-anticipated movie. And he did so while ostensibly portraying the Joker, a character from a prior Batman movie.

Or, as Shah argued, the driving forces behind the difference in media coverage may have been race and religion. The victims in Oak Creek were Indian and Sikh, who, in our post-9/11 world, are often confused with Muslims and so viewed by some as suspect. If people don’t understand or can’t relate to the Sikh religion, they may not be as empathetic when a tragedy strikes its adherents.

The disparity in coverage may have a more fundamental cause.

The Aurora shootings made everyone—journalists and the general public alike—feel vulnerable doing something as simple and innocent as going to a movie with friends and family. As Wright observed, “It’s only natural to get freaked out by threats in proportion to how threatening they seem to you personally.”

A friend recently told me that she and her husband went to see “The Dark Knight Rises” shortly after the shootings and made sure to note the location of the emergency exits, something they didn’t usually do. She added that they were also more aware of people standing or moving during the movie.

Lest we condemn just the media, it’s important to note that journalists weren’t the only ones who treated these tragedies differently.

For example, as Naunihal Singh noted in The New Yorker, neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney visited Oak Creek or suspended campaigning for a day, as they did after the Aurora shootings. Singh concluded that “the massacre in Oak Creek is treated as a tragedy for Sikhs in America rather than a tragedy for all Americans.”

Bottom line: It’s a positive sign that reporters are raising these issues and engaging in this discussion. But talk is cheap. It’s clear that journalists can’t cover every criminal act equally nor should they.

However, they should question their own motivation when deciding how much coverage any given crime deserves.

One last observation: Perhaps the point isn’t that the Oak Creek shootings didn’t get enough coverage but that the Aurora shootings got too much. I’m not a psychologist, but it seems to me that Holmes committed this horrific act in part for attention.

By spending so much time and resources covering the tragedy he caused, the media arguably glorified his acts and gave him what he wanted.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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