A massacre in Uvalde, and the ‘numbing script’ of gun-violence coverage

Last Thursday—five days after a gunman killed ten people at a Buffalo supermarket, all of them Black, in what was the deadliest mass shooting of the year to that point—editors at the Texas Tribune met to plan how they might cover future shootings in their state. Yesterday—five days after that meeting—a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, killed at least twenty-one people, nineteen of them children, at Robb Elementary School in what is the deadliest mass shooting of the year to this point. As details filtered agonizingly through, the Tribune updated the headline atop its homepage to reflect the evolving toll. Sewell Chan, its top editor, tweeted about the planning meeting and said he was “gutted” that it had become relevant so quickly.

Uvalde has a population of around fifteen thousand people, many of whom are Mexican American; the identities of most of the victims are not yet known, though according to district data, around 90 percent of Robb Elementary’s students are Latino. Cecilia Muñoz, an adviser at New America and a former Obama staffer, tweeted in the hours after the news broke that she was “feeling right now the way I did the day of the El Paso shooting in that moment when every Latino paying attention knew who the shooting affected but the media hadn’t yet figured it out,” a reference to an attack on a Texas Walmart in 2019, when a gunman targeting Latinos killed twenty-three people. (The El Paso gunman posted a screed invoking the white-supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy. The Uvalde gunman’s motives aren’t yet established.) Other observers praised the Spanish-language reporters already on the scene in Uvalde, and said that journalists flying in should seek help pronouncing victims’ names if necessary, study up on the region, and continue to center the fact that “a Latino American community has been devastated by gun violence,” as the US congressman Joaquin Castro put it. There were calls, too, for journalists to respect the grief and privacy of the victims’ families, particularly given how small Uvalde is—renewing a debate about reporting practices in traumatized communities that also swelled in the wake of not one but two other recent mass shootings in Texas: in tiny Sutherland Springs in 2017, and in Midland in 2019.

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As the Uvalde story developed, the Tribune was all over it, sending reporters to the scene and publishing a rush of articles addressing different angles; Matthew Watkins, a managing editor, also weighed in with an analysis piece about the “numbing script” that typically follows mass shootings, writing that the latest tragedy will assuredly “add another scar to the psyche of this state—and kick off a routine of mourning, outrage and, ultimately, inaction.” Other local and regional outlets were quick to the scene, too. (As far as I can tell, Uvalde’s small local paper, the Leader-News, hasn’t published any stories yet, though it has tweeted to draw attention to an emergency blood drive in the community.) Priscilla Aguirre, a reporter at MySA in nearby San Antonio who is covering the shooting, said that her cousin was among the victims and was in critical condition in the hospital. The San Antonio Express-News is covering the story aggressively as well, and also weighed in with an editorial decrying national inaction on gun violence. “Although words are our calling, there isn’t a single word we can offer these families or our readers to bring comfort or reassurance that there will be brighter days,” the editorial board wrote. “What has happened in Uvalde should be an unimaginable terror, but what adds to our outrage about this massacre is there is nothing unimaginable or surprising that this has happened.”

Similar notes rang throughout national coverage and reaction, including on cable news, with various journalists speaking to the sickening mix of shock and familiarity that usually follows a mass shooting. “There aren’t any new points to make, any bold new things to say,” Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, said. “No one has the words. Everything is recycled.” Mark Follman, a Mother Jones journalist who recently wrote a book on gun violence and prevention efforts, respectfully disagreed, arguing that “being resigned to this narrative has become part of the problem”; he and Darcy then debated whether this reply proved Darcy’s point. Darcy’s colleague Brian Stelter pushed back on the idea that the media has “no words” to adequately communicate such atrocities, suggesting several, including “destroy,” to describe what heavy weapons do to human bodies. Danielle Ohl, who survived the mass shooting in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis in 2018, initially said that she had no new reaction to offer, then demanded that journalists ask people in power why “they’ve decided it’s OK for children to die,” or else quit the profession. “There is no both sides here,” Ohl wrote. “There is death and death and death and death and death until we decide to have the courage to call it what the fuck it is.”

Meanwhile, leading voices in right-wing politics and media responded, predictably, by blaming the media and liberals for politicizing a fresh tragedy; the Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham both accused President Biden—who had just called out the gun lobby in a televised address—of exploiting the massacre, while Kellyanne Conway, a Fox guest, said that she hoped people “don’t speculate, don’t jump to the political conclusions, don’t call for these sweeping massive changes while people are grieving.” Of course, Conway and others also pushed their preferred school-shooting responses: mantraps and trip wires in schools; more people with guns in schools, funded by tax breaks or unspent covid funds; the renewal of faith in schools and Judeo-Christian values in society. Asked by Jesse Watters why people object to “hardening these softer targets” by putting security guards in schools, Jeanine Pirro said that “people today” are “triggered if there is someone with a gun” based on the “new narrative” that “when you see a gun you should be frightened, as opposed to appreciating what they are doing for you.”

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As I wrote in the wake of the El Paso shooting in 2019, right-wing calls not to politicize massacres when people are grieving—even if taken as sincere, and that’s a big “even if”—channel a false distinction. “Politics,” fundamentally, is about demonstrating the respective costs of action and inaction in the lives of real people—something that centering victims unavoidably does, as well as being the right thing to do from a place of basic human dignity. Focusing on politics isn’t just compatible with focusing on victims, I wrote. It’s necessary.

Of course, the word “politics” is often used these days in a more pejorative, horseracey sense. On that score, the shooting yesterday happened to coincide with primary runoff elections in Texas, with Ken Paxton, the attorney general, holding off a Bush-dynasty challenge to claim the Republican nomination again. (Some national reporters were seemingly rerouted from covering the elections to cover the shooting.) Paxton has a hard-line record on gun rights and in an interview on Newsmax yesterday called for arming school staff; at a campaign event, a fellow Texas Republican said that the shooting “reminds us why we need a great attorney general” who “believes in the Constitution.” Various top outlets’ articles about Paxton’s win—which was not as big a story as it otherwise might have been—didn’t make any mention of his stance on guns, though one found room to cite his thoughts and prayers for the victims in Uvalde.

If these specific stories felt bafflingly divorced from each other, mainstream national media has already swelled with a fresh debate on gun reform more broadly. Texas outlets, too, have already drawn attention to the state’s lax gun laws—not least the Tribune, which promoted three prominent stories on the matter, with one bearing the laudably clear headline “Confronted with mass shootings, Texas Republicans have repeatedly loosened gun laws” and noting that in the state’s extensive recent history of gun violence, leaders have repeatedly proposed action, then quickly fallen silent. Something similar has been true of past media coverage of mass shootings, with a briefly focused policy debate often giving way to neglect and the frantic incentives of the news cycle. We are ourselves actors in the numbing script.

Those who have noticed all the horribly repetitive cadences in the Uvalde story have a point—nothing I’ve noted above is really unprecedented. As I’ve written before, though, this repetition need not hamstring coverage; it can be grimly illustrative and, if framed correctly, even galvanizing. And each tragedy is new in important ways, too—not least in terms of the different individual victims snatched away. We owe it to them to break the cycle, a universal truism in the aftermath of shootings, but one imbued each time with the fresh moral force of lost lives.

Below, more on Uvalde and shootings:

  • Uvalde: Russell Contreras, a race and justice reporter at Axios, pointed out yesterday that Uvalde was “the site of one of the most important school walkouts in civil rights history,” adding that what “Mexican American students did there in 1970 helped students like me years later.” According to Time’s Katie Reilly, “an estimated 500–600 students took part in the protest, which was organized after the school board refused to renew the contract of a beloved Mexican American middle school teacher who advocated for Spanish-speaking students and was one of the few Latino educators in the Uvalde school system.” (The demonstration, Reilly wrote, was “possibly the longest school walkout during the Chicano Movement,” which fought educational discrimination more broadly.)
  • Parkland: The Uvalde shooting was the deadliest at an elementary school since the Sandy Hook massacre ten years ago, and the deadliest at any school since a gunman killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. In the aftermath of the latter shooting, CJR’s Alexandria Neason and Meg Dalton explored how students at the school took on the dual roles of journalist and survivor. “One of my newspaper editors texted me that night, after everything happened,” Melissa Falkowski, the school’s newspaper adviser, recalled. “And she said, ‘We are going to use the newspaper to change the world.’”
  • Sutherland Springs: In the aftermath of the Sutherland Springs shooting in 2017, Lauren McGaughy, a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, wrote an op-ed in which she took the national media to task for swarming the town and overwhelming its seven hundred or so inhabitants with invasive and repetitive coverage. Afterward, I spoke with McGaughy and other observers, and suggested five ideas for more sensitive on-the-ground coverage; you can find them here. McGaughy weighed in again yesterday. “We don’t need every media outlet to respond to tragedies like these,” she wrote. “It’s OK to grab wire instead of sending a team, to leave the stories to local reporters. It’s OK to forgo calling grieving families and thus forgo the ‘scoop.’”
  • ______: Last night, Politico’s Tyler Weyant described mass shootings as “America’s copy and paste tragedy. We change the place, the town, the number of dead and injured. But the constant is lives lost, people who cannot be brought back, and the nation is left in a numb daze.” Last year, CJR and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma placed newspaper boxes around New York, filling them with copies of something called The Inevitable News: nearly identical fill-in-the-blank stories, with only a handful of details changed.


Other notable stories:

  • The “defeat for Trump” framing went into overdrive again last night as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a particular target of Trump’s ire for not rigging the 2020 election, handily won his reelection primary and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, did likewise. Elsewhere, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s one-time White House press secretary, won her primary to become the Republican nominee for governor in Arkansas.
  • Chalkbeat, a nonprofit that covers education, is expanding Votebeat, a newsroom that it first launched as a temporary project in 2020 to cover voting at the local level, and has since grown. Votebeat has now raised more than three million dollars to launch in four states—Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas—where the threat to democracy is greatest, with plans to expand to other states after that. Sara Fischer has more for Axios.
  • Chris Stirewalt—who was let go by Fox after defending the network’s early call of Arizona for Joe Biden in 2020 (Fox cited a restructuring), and has since been outspoken about the divisive nature of cable news—is joining NewsNation, a network that bills itself as balanced and nonpartisan, as an analyst. In other TV-news news, recently departed White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s long-rumored move to MSNBC is now official.
  • TMZ asked a court to stop lawyers for Johnny Depp—who is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation in a case that has become a media circus—from calling Morgan Tremaine, a former TMZ staffer, as a witness. TMZ said that it has a right, under Virginia law, to protect the source of a video that it published showing Depp screaming at Heard, and that Tremaine in any case has no connection to the video. Variety has more.
  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists worked with thirteen other outlets—including USA Today, the BBC, and Le Monde—to publish the “Xinjiang Police Files,” an investigation, based on photos and documents obtained by a researcher, that shines a harsh new light on China’s mass detention of minorities. The photos are the first that the world’s media has received from inside Chinese camps without official approval.
  • A team from CNN reported, based on new video evidence and eyewitness and expert accounts, that Israeli forces likely killed Shireen Abu Akleh, the famed Al Jazeera journalist, in a targeted attack in the West Bank city of Jenin two weeks ago this morning. CNN’s findings support earlier eyewitness testimony and further refute Israeli officials’ claims that Abu Akleh was killed by a Palestinian gunman or in crossfire.
  • Since Taliban officials in Afghanistan ordered female TV journalists to cover their faces on air, male colleagues have started wearing masks, too, in an act of solidarity, Zahra Joya reports for The Guardian. Sahar Fetrat, of Human Rights Watch, described the gesture as “one of the few instances where Afghan men are doing something symbolic because all the resistance and protests against the veil so far has been by women.”
  • Jesse Marsch—the American coach of the English soccer club Leeds United, who has drawn obvious comparisons to Ted Lasso—lashed out at the British media for subjecting him to anti-American “prejudice,” particularly after he described a 4-0 loss as “a win in many ways.” Marsch told SiriusXM that “it’s frankly ridiculous that they don’t like to hear an American accent in their sport, in their country,” but insisted that he can handle it.
  • And the veteran daytime talk-show host Maury Povich is retiring to spend more time with his newspaper. Povich and his wife, the journalist Connie Chung, founded the Flathead Beacon in Montana, where they long summered, with Povich claiming that the paper has been a success and that he plans to be “very active” with it going forward. “All these newspapers are closing,” he told The View, “and I—like an idiot—started one.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Emergency personnel gather near Robb Elementary School following a shooting, Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)