How We Talk About Tragedy

I originally wrote this on the day of the Sandy Hook shootings, December 14th, 2012. I’m reposting it under a renamed collection.

You’ve heard this story before: one mass shooting after another occurs, then the media machine rears its head and gets to work with an almighty roar. Countless satellite-equipped-vans approach the scene of the crime, eyewitnesses are interviewed without consideration of their trauma, and pixelated images of suspected killers are thrust onto any screen available.

I found myself disgusted with a lot today. With the senseless killing, the poor initial reporting, the objectification of the child eyewitnesses, the cries of people “politicizing” the event, and even by some of my friends. I couldn’t stand to see “regular” updates about politics, tech, food, films, even though these people clearly didn’t know what had occurred. Part of me wanted to throw my laptop down and another part wanted to respond to every single update and write in all caps: HOW ARE YOU UPDATING ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE RIGHT NOW?? TURN ON THE NEWS!!

Just as I was feeling so angry, I saw this:

So I went outside to breath. I tried to think of about why I felt the way I did. Why do we find it so hard to have meaningful conversations about these kind of events? Once you hear about a tragedy, whether it’s through your newsfeed, a tweet, a text from a loved one, or word of mouth, you’re immediately caught up in a media hurricane. Because you have to know more. You get caught up in knowing wanting to know why. Every answer is supposed to be just a click away, and we have learned to dig until we’re satisfied.

But you can’t answer why when it comes to terror like this. You’ll never find a truth that makes sense. That’s when the media drags these stories out. Just you wait til next week: everyone from psychologists to teachers and NRA spokespeople will be brought on every major talk show, and the media machine will continue to grind away, all in the name of trying to answer why.

Unless… we stop and think. Unless we decide to change the values we demand out of our information providers. For years, we’ve told them that we want all the details, as soon as they are available. We celebrate those who are first to the story, even if they highlight the wrong narrative. We look forward to the person with the exclusive interview, even if they ask the wrong questions.

Now timeliness is important (and we can still value it) but we need to have better-intended behavior behind our communication, especially on mass-market platforms. The world is smaller than ever before, and that means we have to be more responsible and sensitive about how we talk to each other.

I’ve know that newspapers and shows once adhered to mission statements, many of which centered around keeping citizens informed, helping them make better decisions, and living better lives. Maybe it’s time we demand that again, but this time let’s include an amendment that demands they prompt us to have the right conversations. Talks that move us forward as a society. Let’s break this cycle of repetition.

Speaking of repetition, you should really watch the video where Charlie Brooker breaks down media sensationalism regarding these kind of mass killings. The best part is when a forensic psychologist says (on a talk show) how the media perpetuates these killers through their coverage. It’s great analysis. Seriously — watch the whole thing.

Now keep that video in mind as you read op-eds, listen to radio programs, and watch talk shows over the next few weeks. Go back and think of today’s coverage. Single out the people and organizations that are being classy and respectful. Decide which questions you think ought to be asked. And if you’re in a position to do so — ask them yourself. If you have kids, talk to them about this event. They are our next generation of media makers and they can teach us to be more thoughtful.

Lastly, remember to give yourself time and space to process.

Read to plants, sing to pets, write for you.

Read to plants, sing to pets, write for you.