There are too many mass shootings for the U.S. media to cover

News organizations face an agonizing challenge in a year that has already seen, by one count, more than 320 mass shootings across the United States: deciding which atrocities deserve on-the-ground coverage and which don’t. don’t.

“There have been too many nights like this. Too many nights I’ve stood at crime scenes like this,” NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt told viewers in Highland Park, Illinois on Tuesday. .

But Holt was only providing on-the-ground coverage of the 14 deadliest mass shootings that took place over the holiday weekend, according to a tally by Gun Violence Archive. At least 62 people were shot and 10 killed in Chicago alone, not including the parade massacre about 30 miles from the city.

“There’s no checklist, per se, of whether we’re going or not,” Holt told The Washington Post. When scares about the Highland Park shooting interrupted his vacation, he said, “circumstances alone – a suburban July 4 parade – immediately signaled that this would be a major story. As the news unfolded, it became clear that we had to be on the ground.

Many journalists have a similar triage process: prioritizing shootings based partly on death toll, partly on a subjective sense of horror and shock. Inevitably, this means most don’t end up enjoying meaningful national coverage.

Reporters flocked to Buffalo when 10 people were killed at a grocery store in May that targeted black people; then in Uvalde, Texas, when 21 people were killed at an elementary school less than two weeks later. But a June 4 shooting that left three dead and a dozen injured in Philadelphia’s entertainment district received far less attention from the national press, as did an attack that left three dead and many more. injured at a Chattanooga nightclub the next day.

“I think there are times when it’s kind of like a collective earthquake,” said Wendy Fisher, an executive who oversees newsgathering for ABC News, which sent reporters to Buffalo, Uvalde and Highland Park. “You feel these events. They are very shocking. They have special characteristics. It’s not so much about numbers – it’s a bit like “Where did they get to?” When did they arrive? their randomness. … It’s really kind of a collective shock factor.

There is no universal definition of a mass shooting. The gun violence record records any incident in which four or more people were shot or killed, not including the perpetrator. The benchmark for deploying Washington Post reporters to an incident is usually four or more deaths, according to Amanda Erickson, associate America editor at the national desk. She said editors monitor social media and local news for early reports, then decide on a coverage plan based on the size and nature of the incident. The Post can normally dispatch a reporter to the scene within 90 minutes.

“Unfortunately, there are so many shootings across the country that we have to be smart about using our resources,” Erickson said. “We can’t tell all the stories. All shootings affect a community, but we are looking for the impact on a community and beyond.

The reality is that some mass shootings are considered more newsworthy than others. A school shooting is different from a fight that results in gunfire, as is a hate crime targeting a specific group or an act of terrorism.

NPR Acting Editor-in-Chief Vickie Walton-James said shooting stories that get national attention are usually attacks “targeting people in places where people expect to be safe,” such as a school or church, or targeting people of a specific race or religion. And publishers must determine which ones can be featured, given the limited airtime on regular radio shows. “There’s so much going on,” she said. “There is a war in Ukraine. There are the January 6 hearings. There are these horrible acts of violence. And we try to balance them all and give them all the coverage they deserve, while remembering that we need to bring some joy to the audience.

There is also a logistical problem, with smaller press operations more limited in journalistic resources. “PBS NewsHour,” for example, sent reporters to Uvalde and Buffalo in May but not in Highland Park this week, partly because many staff were away for the long holiday weekend. “With mass shootings it comes down to size and horror and scope, but it also comes down to when and who is available and when we can get there and the resources we take away from other shows. “said Sara Just, the show’s principal. executive producer.

The epidemic of mass shootings is not new, although the frequency of shootings has accelerated over the past two years. Last year was the worst on record, according to Gun Violence Archive, and 2022 is on par. “I don’t remember there being a time when there was so much back-to-back,” Just said.

With little hope that political leaders are close to ending the crisis, news outlets are looking for more sophisticated approaches to coverage than simply racing from one massacre to the next.

ABC News announced last month that a team of correspondents and producers would remain in Uvalde next year to “provide continued coverage as the investigation continues and the community attempts to heal.” CNN is also setting a “Guns in America” beat on the network following the Uvalde shooting.

Inevitably, they are still criticized.

Leland Vittert, a former Fox News anchor who works for new cable news channel NewsNation, used his show on Tuesday to claim that CNN and MSNBC are prioritizing coverage of the Highland Park shooting while ignoring gun violence. routine in Chicago for socio-economic and political reasons.

“Highland Park is a wealthy suburb. Upper-class white professionals are the main viewers of CNN and MSNBC. It’s a fact,” Vittert said in an interview. “[I] I can’t speak to anyone else’s motivations,” he added, but “it’s important to highlight what’s covered and why it’s covered and what it says about the priorities of people who cover it.

Assigning priorities isn’t always so easy inside a newsroom. “We’re making a call right now,” said New York Times editor Marc Lacey. “We’re not perfect, but we make a call on how big of a story we think it is, and that call isn’t based on where it happened, it’s not not based on who’s involved – it’s based on how big a human tragedy has been.”

Then there’s the question of which stories get a prominent place in the print media. “If you covered every shooting on the front page, unfortunately, American newspapers would just report on the shootings every day,” he added. “They’re so mundane, so we need to raise the bar and feature only the most heinous, deadliest, horrific shootings of these horrific events.”

But the Times isn’t just deploying reporters after a large mass shooting, Lacey said. He was particularly proud of a story that resulted from the dispatch of dozens of Times reporters to document gun violence in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, when 64 people were shot and six died in three days. “He was covering a type of filming event that we can sometimes overlook, and I think we need to focus on filming that may seem routine to some,” he said.

Paul Farhi contributed to this report.

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