In the wake of a shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that left at least ten people dead, last week President Obama held a press conference in which he stated that “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We become numb to this.”
It’s an understandable lament.
There’s also no evidence that it’s true, and plenty of evidence that it’s false.
Is the reporting becoming routine? The news media, for their part, have a fairly standard template for reporting on mass shootings, and it’s not much different than the way it covers any other tragedy, from a natural disaster to an act of terrorism. It involves collecting the basic facts, speculation about causes and motivations, glowing biographies of once-promising lives tragically cut short, and so on. If you look at how the news media covered the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, it’s not much different than how it covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School or Aurora theater shootings nearly fifteen years later.
The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of cable news networks had an enormous impact on how stories were covered, but the idea that there is a “numbness” to media coverage of mass shootings is simply false. In fact if anything journalists go out of their way to avoid seeming callous or jaded to tragic news stories and devote significant airtime to exploring (some would say exploiting) the personal and communal grief in the aftermath of these events. Emotion and sensationalism—not numbness or treating mass shootings as “routine”—are coin of the realm in journalism.
So Obama is wrong about the reporting; what about the public’s reaction, the royal “we” who he claims become numb to these events? Once again Obama has misunderstood or mischaracterized the situation. Citizens of Roseburg, Oregon, where the shooting happened, are certainly not “numb” to the tragedy. As The New York Times noted, “One by one, the congregants of the Liberty Christian Fellowship took the microphone on Sunday, steadied their breaths and told stories of how a gunman’s rampage inside the community college here rippled through their lives… Nearly every person in this close-knit lumber town of 22,000 in the shadow of the Cascade mountains in western Oregon seems to know a victim or is related to someone who fled from gunfire that day. Everyone, it seems, has a terrible, personal story to tell.”
Nor is there evidence that the general public has become inured to mass shootings; instead of a collective shrug the Oregon shootings have spawned outrage around the world and on social media—spurred in part by hashtag activism among Christians. If, as President Obama claims, Americans have become “numb” and desensitized to routine gun violence and mass shootings, then this reaction is curious indeed. No one in America has shrugged their shoulders and said (or even suggested) that the latest shootings didn’t affect them because they’d heard and seen previous shootings. (Such a statement would be fodder for an Onion news article, though the satirical news source hasn’t used that specific angle yet.)
I wrote about this phenomenon extensively in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, focusing on attempts to censor entertainment media content because of its claimed desensitizing effects: “Politicians pushing their constitutionally challenged quick-fixes and alarmist agendas often don’t even recognize the contradictions in their rhetoric. How is it, for example, that American teens on one hand are said to be desensitized to real violence through playing video games and watching violent films, yet in the next breath we are told that those same students are shocked and stunned by the violence in their schools and communities? If young people don’t think much of killing because they see gore and violence in the video games Doom and Mortal Kombat and watching The Matrix, they presumably don’t need the phalanx of psychologists and counselors that floods into schools after each shooting.”
I’m sure Obama meant well, and the president offering comforting commentary or words of solace—no matter how trite or even self-evidently wrong—is de rigueur for the job. I understand and sympathize with Obama’s frustration with both mass murders and Washington’s political inability to address the issue. Overall I share his belief that existing gun control laws are inadequate and should be stronger (though I also recognize that as a practical matter there is no way to stop shootings and murders).
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Obama for engaging in a bit of hyperbole. After all, we all sometimes say things off the cuff that we don’t mean literally. But these were prepared comments delivered by the President of the United States about a grave and important topic, surely messages meant to be taken to heart. Perhaps usually eloquent Obama simply used the wrong words to describe his feelings and the nation’s reaction, but I do not believe for a minute that he has become numb to the deaths; instead I expect they weigh on him, as a president, as a father, and as a human being.
The fact is that there is little or no evidence that Americans, the news media, or anyone else is becoming numb to mass shootings, as Obama claimed. Murders are inherently horrific events, and the killing of innocent people by strangers is especially tragic. The inability to pass meaningful gun control legislation in America has many causes, but human indifference to mass murder is not among them.