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School shootings: fewer deaths mean less coverage?

By MANI THANGADURAI

In writing about the dastardly gun attack in Las Vegas, America’s deadliest mass shooting to date, I remember saying that we needed to make gun issues and gun control an important issue every day, not just after the next shooting.

Of course, it hasn’t been too long since then, and we’ve had three school shootings in a very short time frame, resulting in a number of injuries and two fatalities. Yet, in comparison to the Las Vegas atrocity, we’ve seen noticeably lesser coverage and media time offered to these shootings despite their equally insidious nature. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that the relative paucity of fatalities and injuries disqualifies these attacks from being classified as ‘mass shootings.’

The definition of a “mass shooting” has in itself been subject to a lot of controversy, and some change. While the FBI has traditionally considered a mass shooting to be any incident in which four or more people were killed during a related event, a congressional act in 2013 following the Sandy Hook massacre defined “mass killing” as “three or more killings in a single incident,” and labeled mass shooting as a type of mass killing. Another definition goes so far as to include the assailant as one of the fatalities, with yet another one considering the intent of the assailant in question. And for all the talk of the number of fatalities, certain events such as family murder-robberies and gang shootouts which would result in more deaths do not qualify as mass shootings due to some technicalities.

What is seen here is a virtual reticence from the media when it comes to providing more coverage than they deem necessary, especially since according to definition, they don’t qualify as “mass shootings.” Following the Jan. 23 shooting in the small town of Italy, Texas which left one girl injured; two students were killed and 14 more were wounded when another teenage student wielded a gun in anger at Marshall County High School in Western Kentucky. A more recent school shooting in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, which was allegedly accidental, resulted in two injuries and the arrest of a 12-year-old girl. Although not mass shootings in the “mass” sense of the definition, these incidents are still terrible in every way. Schools, which should be among the safest of places for children and all people, have now become the softest of targets. And even after the horrors of Columbine and Sandy Hook among others, it’s as if lessons still haven’t been learned about the protection of school students nationwide from the menace of guns.

What’s more hurtful though, is the fact that these events have received comparatively much less coverage than the Las Vegas event. Even considering the fact that these events have coincided with more and more newsworthy controversies from Donald Trump’s White House, including the recent government shutdown, it still doesn’t excuse what has been a clear relegation of stories of such a nature to second place behind the Donald Trump crazy hour. Schoolchildren throughout the country are under attack more than ever, and guns are continually being kept in unsafe places in many households. More and more youngsters are now also in possession of handguns despite stark questions about their suitability for said weapons. This isn’t to mention the near certainty of the Kentucky shooter being tried as a major for his crimes, despite being underage. How could mere teenagers be in possession of those weapons? How were they able to bring them onto a school campus? How could their parents have let all of this fly under the radar? Instead of bringing these questions to the forefront alongside the hotter news from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the media have so far relegated these stories and issues to second place or lower, which is inexcusable.

One of the biggest issues with regard to recording shooting incidents, be they “mass” or otherwise, is that most of those cases cannot be easily recovered. In addition, the fact that the media was not as digitized in the 1980s or earlier as it is now means that information must be collected on an ex post facto basis, leaving room for many discrepancies. Two major shootings in 2012, the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut and the Aurora Theater massacre in Colorado, were the starting point for two websites to begin maintaining a database of shootings and gun-related events, dating back 30 years. It’s quite ironic that no such effort was taken following the Columbine tragedy in 1998 in Littleton, Colorado, a tragic attack which spawned several similar attempts in the coming years. As a society we’ve developed a tendency to qualify for ourselves what registers as a “mass shooting,” in the process ignoring select events like acts of war or gang violence. Instead, according to criminologist James Alan Fox, people really only pay attention, “…when individuals or small groups of individuals declare their own war, and turn a school, restaurant, movie theater or church into their own personal battleground.”

Regardless of issues concerning outdated media, databases and human perception, there is now little to no excuse for the media not to do its job and put such attacks at the forefront of national consciousness. For all the raging debates about gun control and other psychological issues surrounding the perpetrators, what cannot be ignored is not only the ever increasing loss of life, but the increasing frequency of these attacks on schools and students who are the future of this country. In the mad rush for higher TRP points, it’s almost as if the media has been willing to ignore these attacks simply because the number of fatalities doesn’t qualify them as “mass shootings.” As a university student, every time I hear of a school or university gun attack, it hits home in a way. As a student who is also a part of the media, along with my team I must do what I can to ensure that these attacks are further ingrained in our collective consciousness. Hopefully, by writing this opinion piece, I will have played my part.

Mani Thangadurai can be reached at m.thangadurai@spartans.ut.edu

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