Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rambling Thoughts on the Connecticut Tragedy

In case you haven't heard, yesterday there was a terrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in which 26 people were killed. I happened to have spent all of yesterday (~10:30am-4:00pm) sitting in a service station waiting room while our car was being worked on. The lone TV was tuned to CNN, and since there were other people in the room who clearly wanted to watch it, I couldn't change the channel, even when the depths of my disgust were truly and fully plumbed. I got the bulk of the mainstream media coverage, whether I wanted it or not. These are a few scattered thoughts I had yesterday that I thought worthy of jotting down, if only for reasons of catharsis.*

Thought 1 (~1 hour into the coverage): For the love of God don't turn this into a media circus.

Since I don't really watch much TV anymore I suppose I don't know if it's representative of other major media outlets (though I suspect it is), but CNN's coverage of the shooting was truly despicable. When I first sat down and saw the news (this was in the first hour of coverage -when obviously there was no information available other than that another school shooting had happened) they had a local Connecticut reporter on the phone and were trying to get some information about the community. The CNN anchor (I'll be generous and assume that she was being fed questions and not coming up with them herself) kept up a steady stream of questions along these lines:

  • Is this not the worst tragedy you could possibly imagine?
  • You have a child in school, don't you? Is this kind of thing terrible for you to think about? 
  • How awful is this for that small community?
After a few minutes of this the interviewee fell off the line. He may have just lost the connection, but I like to think his basic human decency took over and he hung up. 
Look, I understand that one very important function of the media involves telling us what is happening, including on an emotional and psychological level (when those things are relevant, at any rate). And I further understand that it may very well have been that this anchor was just trying to process this herself (and failing miserably on national television), and wasn't really thinking about what was coming out of her mouth. 
But there comes a point when we have to remember that maybe the news carries its own emotional weight without us needing it rubbed in our faces- even a point when we have to wonder whether the presentation is more concerned with drumming up viewers through sensationalism than it is with telling us what happened. After all, tragedy gets more people to flip on their televisions than anything else. Would it really have cost them that many viewers to have said "we have no information at this point, so we're not going to throw up a bunch of melodramatic adjectives until we know more"?  

All of this without even asking whether this sort of lurid format actually gets in the way. Certainly it doesn't do any favors for the local community to have hordes of reporters descending on their town as they're in the middle of trying to sort through what's going on. Obviously, some information has to be conveyed if only to keep crazy rumors from floating around the internet (you know  "ENTIRE SCHOOL MASSACRED" would have made the Facebook rounds). Yet, there's also something to be said for giving the police and the school the chance to do their job without the feeling that 300 million people are breathing down their necks while the media shouts loaded questions in voice-overs. 

I don't have a solution to this. We have a free press, and it may be that sensationalism and the marketing of human emotions is simply one price we have to pay for that. It doesn't mean I have to be comfortable with it.

Thought 2 (~2 hours into the coverage) For the love of God don't make this political

So you hate guns? Fine, lobby to overturn the Second Amendment. 
So you love guns? Also fine, buy them up while you can before someone overturns the Second Amendment.
So you use dead children to push your agenda? Shame on you. No, that's really not strong enough. But since I try to maintain some level of decency on this blog, I won't say the words that I thought when the CNN anchor (a different one from before) suggested that a different gun policy (whether more control or less I won't say- frankly it doesn't matter) would have prevented this tragedy. Slightly less disgusting have been the social media posts and updates floating around arguing that if guns were outlawed/if guns were everywhere the shooting would have happened. I say "slightly" less disgusting because there has been at least some space of time to give people a bit to process. It's still disgusting, just less so. 

Thought 3 (~4 hours into the coverage) Well done President Obama

There's been some discussion over whether the tears were real. I don't know; I don't care. What matters is that he did his job and he did it well. He made his statement after things were settled in Connecticut (so minimal disruption of police business there); he kept it non-political; and he kept it short. Which does actually matter, since as president the longer you talk the more you send the message that you matter more than whatever it is you're talking about. And the American president for all his power is not as important as 26 citizens. 

Thought 4 (~5 1/2 hours into the coverage) I don't even want to look at Facebook tonight

I love social media. Not all of it, of course. But Facebook is a great opportunity to engage with others, find out how people's lives are going, and stay in touch with people across huge distances. While getting my car worked on I didn't have my computer (which is fine- I'm no technology addict), but the thought of having to face a day's worth of political posts, prayers, and photoshopped soundbytes after listening to news coverage of the shooting for five and a half hours straight was daunting. 

Thought 5 (on the drive home) Our response ends up being the least helpful thing possible

I am a Christian, and follow several different Christian writers. Many of these over the past two days have been writing various theological explanations and consolations intended to help believers and unbelievers alike understand how a tragedy on this scale fits into any kind of bigger picture. The general theme has been that as Christians, we all believe that events like this are sad, but understandable given that we are all sinners at heart. And while I think we see that reality on stark display in a terrible event like this, I think we also see it woven into a culture that: 1) facilitates a media circus that feeds on such tragedy; 2) allows (even encourages) people to take something this awful and twist it to their own political ends; 3) elevates the question of how deeply the President does or does not actually care over the actual events; and 4) uses social media like Facebook (and personal blogs -don't think I'm leaving myself out here) to enhance an already bad situation.

Again, I have no solutions, just random thoughts.

*I'm not entirely sure that "catharsis" is quite the right word, since that usually applies to letting go of sadness or happiness, and that's not quite where I'm coming from. As no doubt comes out in this post, it's more a wide-ranging disgust with modern American culture that I'm trying to let flow in a healthy way.

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