After another mass shooting, the media must keep focus on gun reform

On Saturday, there was yet another tragedy in America. A gunman opened fire on state troopers as they attempted to stop his vehicle near Midland, in the Permian Basin of West Texas. A high-speed chase ensued along 15 miles of highway linking Midland and Odessa; it lasted nearly two hours, during which time the shooter killed seven people, including a 15-year-old, and wounded others, including a 17-month-old child. As usual, reporters flocked to the scene. “We’re left where we always are after these conversations,” Garrett Haake told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, “wondering what, if anything, will come from this, other than further discussion.”

The shooting attracted widespread coverage, including on the Sunday shows. Numerous outlets noted the massacre, less than a month ago, in El Paso, where a gunman targeting the Hispanic community murdered 22 people at a Walmart. They also mentioned a sharp irony: on Sunday, the day after the latest shooting, Texas enacted new laws loosening restrictions on gun possession, including in places of worship, schools, and apartment blocks. Democratic candidates for president centered gun laws during their campaign stops, leading to more press mentions. Nonetheless, the story competed for limited public attention over the long holiday weekend—most notably with Hurricane Dorian, the historically powerful Atlantic storm system that already wreaked havoc in the Bahamas and soon may hammer the East Coast of the US. A boat fire that killed at least 15 people in California also demanded our attention and empathy.

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The shooting coverage we have seen has had a repetitive quality. After the El Paso massacre and another shooting, hours later, in Dayton, Ohio, Margaret Sullivan, of The Washington Post, wrote that when tragedy strikes, “we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened, we profile the shooter, we tell about the victims’ lives, we get reaction from public officials.” Unsurprisingly, coverage of the West Texas shooting bore all these hallmarks; judging by this morning’s homepages, we’re now at the “profile the shooter” stage, which is always fraught for the press given the risk that our coverage could inspire copycats. If past form is any guide, the cycle is likely nearing its end.

In the same column, Sullivan assessed how the media might break this cycle. Going forward, she argued, we should call more clearly for politicians to take action on guns—doing so would end the numbing repetitiveness of our coverage, if not the tragedies themselves. Reporters and columnists could, between them, suggest possible solutions, demand specific plans from lawmakers, and ask our leaders what they’re doing to fix the problem for as long as it takes for them to fix it. Ultimately, Sullivan argued, such a pivot demands that we take sides, even if that remains an uncomfortable impulse for many old-school journalists. “Just as there was in the 1950s and 1960s while covering civil rights, or today in covering the climate crisis, there actually is a right or wrong side on the matter of controlling rampant gun violence,” she wrote.

Briefly, it looked like the El Paso and Dayton shootings might serve as an on-ramp for such an approach: their shocking proximity and (in the case of the El Paso massacre) racist motivation held public and media attention, and thus increased the pressure on politicians to do something. In the days following the shootings, Trump suggested he would push for more stringent background checks. Politico said this could constitute a “Nixon-to-China moment” for the president on guns, given the louder-than-usual outcry, Trump’s huge popularity among his base, and the financial and administrative mess engulfing the NRA; according to The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott, Ivanka Trump tried to entice her optics-obsessed father to pass a meaningful gun law by dangling the potential for a media-friendly signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. But that momentum petered out as media focus became diluted. By the middle of August—just weeks after the El Paso and Dayton shootings—Trump reassured Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the NRA, that background checks were off the table. (No amount of mess, it seems, can weaken its influence.)

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On August 6, three days after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Politico’s Playbook team warned that the recent mass killings “could be all but forgotten as a political issue by the time Congress comes back in September.” With lawmakers set to return next week, we face an even more distressing possibility: another tragedy did happen, but looks unlikely to meaningfully move the needle in Washington. On Sunday, Trump referred to a package of gun-control measures the White House plans to push, but lawmakers remain divided on the substance of those measures. So far, the package’s headline seems to be a pledge to expedite the death penalty for mass murderers, rather than improved background checks.

It’s easy to say gun laws demand more sustained coverage; so do lots of urgent matters, and the news cycle is crammed right now. But the slew of needless deaths in recent weeks reminds us that if any issue merits continued media pressure, this one is surely near the top of the list. Pressure, of course, doesn’t mean our recalcitrant politicians will do something. But relieving the pressure pretty much guarantees they won’t.

Below, more on the West Texas shooting:

  • The show must go on: KOSA-TV, a CNN affiliate in Odessa, was forced to evacuate its studio on Saturday due to the shooting’s proximity. Anchors left the set but kept their microphones on so they could continue to report off camera.
  • No notoriety: At a news conference, Michael Gerke, Odessa’s police chief, declined to name the suspected gunman; “I’m not going to give him any notoriety for what he did,” Gerke said. The purposeful omission mirrored a growing trend among media outlets and officials. In March, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, refused to name the shooter who killed 51 Muslim worshippers in that country; in June, the police chief in Virginia Beach named a mass shooter there once and then said he would not repeat it.
  • Misinformation: Doctored screenshots listing false information about the West Texas gunman circulated on social media in the aftermath of the shooting: far-right accounts, for instance, spread the claim that he was Jewish and a Democrat. The Daily Dot has more.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.