When asked about gun violence in the United States, which recent atrocity do you think of?
Understandably, for many, the answer will be
Orlando. In what was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, forty-nine people were killed and and another fifty-three wounded, all at the hands of one gunman. But, just eight days prior to this massacre, a special e detailed sixty-four shootings that occurred over Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. We know the names of the Orlando victims, but do we know anything about those shot in Chicago? New York Times featur
Unfortunately, that weekend of violence in Chicago was not an anomaly. The
Chicago Tribune has tracked 2,308 shooting victims in the city for 2016 alone, and the year’s barely half over. Yet, we are faced with huge disparities in the media’s coverage and its public consumption regarding mass shootings versus other instances of gun violence and homicides. Debunking Misconceptions about Mass Shootings Across the United States
Mass shooting: A single individual who targets four or more victims with the intent to kill, not including the perpetrator, with a firearm (CDC)
Homicides: An individual deliberately kills at least one other person (Cornell university law)
While mass shootings compose less than
0.01 percent of gun-related violence across the country on a yearly basis, the media’s response to these tragic incidents tends to be wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage. Comparatively little coverage is dedicated to much more common forms of gun violence.
A Google News search that factors in articles in the past three months (April 19 to July 19) found that the term
“Orlando shooting” yielded 14,747 news articles while “shootings in Chicago” yielded just 262 news articles. The Orlando mass shooting received sixty-five times more coverage than the Chicago shootings that have left thousands wounded and hundreds dead.
This finding is even more startling considering the small portion of gun violence in the United States that mass shootings compose. Of the approximately
29,226 incidents involving gun violence since January 2016, 179 have been qualified as mass shootings. In Chicago, more than 2,300 gun-related incidents have taken place. Even though eighteen of those are considered mass shootings, they have received minimal media coverage.
The contradictions in the prevalence of types of gun-related incidents compared to volume of media coverage may be steering public attention away from societal issues that are harrowing and widespread.
Media’s Rhetoric, Public Consumption of Terrorism, Mass Shootings, and Homicides
Terror and Consumption
The role of terrorism and the
media’s rhetoric in covering this topic must be factored in when analyzing uneven media coverage of gun violence.
It is undoubtedly terrifying that a person could enter an LGBT nightclub and take the lives of forty-nine other human beings. About twenty minutes into his attack in Orlando, shooter Omar Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS). The possibility that such an attack could be a coordinated effort of an international, extremist terrorist organization is also undoubtedly terrifying.
But it is key to realize that this tragedy in Orlando was at the hands
of one, lone person capable of such violence (the CIA has also reportedly found no actual ties between Mateen and IS). Let us compare this to Memorial Day weekend in Chicago, during which sixty-four people were shot—by multiple different people, all equipped with firearms and all willing to use them to kill. That the latter scenario in which so many different people were opening fire in dozens of separate shootings is normalized speaks to a different kind of terrorism.
Just as homicides are far more frequent than mass shootings, the same holds true with regards to acts of terrorism. In the past twenty-one years, domestic terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of
3,503 Americans. In a five-year span ranging from 2010–14, gun-related homicides were responsible for approximately 54,940 deaths. Following a mass shooting October 2015 that left ten dead at Umpqua Community College, President Obama said:
“Have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports. We spend over a trillion dollars, and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet, we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?” Rhetoric and Consumption
Rhetoric used by the media directly influences how its readers absorb and react to news. The sensationalization of terrorist attacks and mass shootings (the lines between which are increasingly blurred) have repeatedly captured public interest, perhaps due to the unspoken air of paranoia terrorism and its coverage can foster.
Google Trends News search of “shooting in Orlando” vs. “shootings in Chicago” over the last ninety days showed users searched for news articles about the former roughly ten times more than the latter.
An interactive version of this graph can be found here. Source: Google Trends search by the author.
Why is it the case that such massacres receive not just more coverage than homicides, but more consumption?
One answer lies in the field of human rights, where media consumers have been found to be consistently desensitized to high numbers of atrocities. As
Paul Slovic and Susan Moeller have researched, humans have an inability to comprehend mass numbers of the dead or in-danger. Exposure to the media’s overuse of such numbers, particularly after factoring in distance or perceived distance, can cause compassion fatigue—a numbing effect to atrocities such as persistent homicides.
Below is a sampling of headlines covering the June Orlando shootings. They characteristically include humanizing adjectives, direct appeals for readers to relate to the victims, and notes of terrorism and hysteria; they also mourn the loss of life.
Headlines compiled by author. Selection of top hits yielded by Google News.
The above Orlando headlines are starkly contrasted by headlines of articles covering recent gun violence in Chicago, which depict victims of gun violence as raw numbers, display a lack of humanized language, and include adjectives citing the enormity and complexity of the problem at hand—inducing a sense of
hopelessness, which can contribute to the disengagement readers experiencing compassion fatigue undergo.
HEADLINES COMPILED BY AUTHOR. SELECTION OF TOP HITS YIELDED BY GOOGLE NEWS. Distance, Difference, and Ties to Race/Socioeconomic Status
In addition to the numbing effects that may result from framing victims solely as statistics, media consumers can be further desensitized to news based on
how far away they perceive themselves from the population being covered. While this distance can be geographical, more often than not it is solidified on the basis of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic differences.
The resultant desensitization is epitomized by Americans’ generally low rates of media consumption when it comes to the minority populations often targeted by homicides/normalized gun violence: Rhetoric focusing on victims as numbers, part of hopeless cycles of violence in poor, largely black neighborhoods like the southside of Chicago otherize, and to a certain extent,
dehumanize them to readers elsewhere in the United States. Conversely, readers of sensationalized mass shootings in less violent cities or whiter, more affluent cities are made to feel as though this could have happened to them, closing any perceived distance they, the consumers, have from the victims.
study conducted by the New York Times into mass shootings found that on average, three-quarters of victims are black. Examining the highly publicized mass shootings in Arizona, Sandy Hook, and Colorado that were among the top news stories in 2011 and 2012 paint a different demographic picture. Though exact statistics are not readily accessible, from the information available we know that the demographic makeup of these shootings do not line up with this 73 percent black victim average, estimating that a majority of the victims were white.
Media coverage and consumption has been primarily focused on the tragic shootings that occur in places that
pundits and politicians have said deserve to be safe—movie theaters, night clubs, and schools. President Obama has reinforced this rhetoric, delivering at least fourteen speeches in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, and in each emphasizing how the venues where these shootings took place should never be places where people fear for their lives.
The streets of Chicago, however, have not been dubbed places that should specifically be expected to be safe.
No one should have to fear for their lives when going to see a movie at their neighborhood theater—regardless of whether that’s in Aurora, CO., or Chicago, IL. Particularly given the domestic policy choices that have fostered perpetually segregated (racially and socioeconomically) neighborhoods, the nation has a responsibility to ensure the same value is placed on the lives of their inhabitants. Conclusion
Chicago is plagued by gun violence daily—its victims’ families facing the same despair as those devastated by Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Orlando do. By dedicating disparate coverage to gun violence in Chicago—and in doing so, representing victims as numbers rather than human beings as well as utilizing rhetoric that portrays the epidemic as unsolvable—the media is enabling the perpetual normalization of gun violence as consumed by its readers.
By dedicating disparate coverage to gun violence in Chicago—and in doing so, representing victims as numbers rather than human beings as well as utilizing rhetoric that portrays the epidemic as unsolvable—the media is enabling the perpetual normalization of gun violence as consumed by its readers.
Darrell Pedan, seventeen years old. Deshawn Thompson, twenty years old. Rekia Boyd, twenty-two years old—who was killed by a police officer later cleared of all charges. These are just a few of the names of gun violence victims who typically get overlooked by the media and its consumers due to the normalization of homicides and mass killings in Chicago and places like it.
Research and history have shown the media has the power to affect change by spotlighting certain issues, which can then rally the public to pressure public officials for legislation. Media has the responsibility to give its readers the whole picture of gun violence, rather than a narrow slice that plays into both terrorist narratives and racial privilege.
Cover image: Chicagoans gathered in the Grand Crossing neighborhood to discuss solutions to the violence after two young people were killed and one wounded in a drive-by on January 6 2016. Source: Flickr, Bob Simpson.