The media today: Gun laws, fake news, and race—covering the Vegas shooting

The horror played out in an all-too-familiar pattern across news outlets. Cell phone video of people screaming and scrambling for safety, early reports identifying the shooter and a possible accomplice, somber voices of terrorism experts and law enforcement veterans. On Sunday evening, a country music festival in Las Vegas became the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, at least for now.

Just over a day after a man opened fire from his elevated perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, investigators are still trying to determine a motive. What is known is that 59 people are dead and more than 500 are injured. Police recovered 23 guns in the shooter’s hotel room and 19 more at his house in Mesquite, Nevada.

In the hours after this uniquely American tragedy, gun control conversations start immediately. Reuters’s Jeff Mason used the second question of the White House press briefing to ask Sarah Sanders whether this shooting had led President Trump to consider pursuing tighter gun laws. Reporters and television anchors referenced the issue throughout the day’s coverage. “I wish I could tell you this is the last time I’m ever going to report to you about the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history,” Jake Tapper said on CNN. “But I cannot tell you that.” Writing in The New York Times, Democratic Congressman Steve Israel asked and answered, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, “‘Will anything change?’ The simple answer is no.”

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While one thread of coverage centered on guns, another focused on the gunman. Early reports identified him as a 64-year-old Las Vegas resident, and the phrase “lone wolf” quickly appeared in stories. As Poynter’s Indira Lakshmanan notes, that fits a pattern. “The unspoken implication is that if a white, non-Muslim person mows down innocent victims and terrorizes a community, it was a disturbed loner in a freak incident,” she writes. Race also played into word choices describing the attack as the “worst mass shooting in US history.” Vox’s German Lopez explains how that distinction overlooks race-based violence in the past.

As journalists scrambled to report out details of the shooting, identify the gunman, and tell the victims’ stories, fake news and conspiracy theories muddied the waters. At points yesterday, both Google and Facebook surfaced erroneous, conspiracy-driven stories among their top results on the shooting. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel writes that big tech platforms are still botching breaking news.

The stories of lives lost or forever altered will continue to be told. The search for a motive will go on. Judging coverage less than 36 hours after a horrendous attack is uncomfortable. But journalists and newsrooms should learn from the lessons of Las Vegas because, if one thing is sadly certain, it’s that this sort of thing will happen again. Below, more on the coverage of and reaction to Sunday’s events.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.