I don’t believe in comparing tragedies. One person’s loss is no greater than another’s. The number of casualties means little to the person who lost someone. Who are we as an audience to compare? But I will compare news coverage.
This piece by David Dennis from The Guardian (Why isn’t New Orleans Mother’s Day Parade shooting a ‘national tragedy’?) has been getting some traction lately. And it makes some important points.
Why wasn’t the parade shooting reported more largely in the media? Why aren’t stories about violence in “inner city” neighborhoods something we hear about more? Why, even, was the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, which killed 14 people, an afterthought in the news? (I’m leaving aside the question of international stories for now because that’s a whole other issue.)
Dennis makes the argument that the audience, and thus the media, cares about what middle America can relate to, and there’s truth in that. (In the coverage there has been about the New Orleans parade shooting, writers have struggled to explain to the audience what exactly a “second-line parade” is.) Other writers have argued the lack of coverage is related to race or socio-economic issues. As Dennis himself says, “Americans can’t identify with being at a parade in the ‘inner city’ where ‘gang violence’ erupts. The ‘oh my God, that could happen to me’ factor isn’t present with a story about New Orleans or the Chicago southside.’” That’s certainly true.
But it’s also true that journalists are taught to look for stories that are “new” or “unusual” (think “news”) because that’s what readers expect. When I pitch a story, I have to fight for its news value and say why readers care. What piles onto these tragedies is that they are neither “new” nor particularly “unusual,” which is in itself a reason they should be covered much much more. (As one journalist once told me, with every story you want and think should be covered you’re begging for a hook to justify it to your editor.)
How do we get these stories covered by the media? Frequently, they are covered—in numbers. They’re grouped together in stories about “trends” in violence, in, for instance, the number of gun deaths since Sandy Hook. National journalists lump them together and insist on their news value by presenting them as a larger story.
But these stories are not necessarily lumpable. Logistically, numbers do not always tell the story, and numbers from one tragedy cannot always be combined with another. At the same time, just as the media is criticized for not covering these tragedies, it is also criticized for focusing on “negative” stories. Covering in-depth the Mother’s Day shooting would add to post-Katrina stereotypes of a city unrecovered. And yet, still, there are people who were injured at the parade. Their stories are no less worthy of being told simply because it could perpetuate stereotypes or because there is no easy “hook.”
There are no easy answers, but I hope that with new and evolving ways to convey news, more of these stories will be told. But as writers grumble about why West, Texas was an afterthought in the news or why the Mother’s Day parade didn’t conjure up enough outrage, it’s should be noted that this issue of media coverage is not just about class or race or gender or geography. It’s even more complicated than that.