The shootings in Orlando, the deadliest in United States history, have been all over the news for the past few days. A gunman named Omar Mateen attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando on Monday at two in the morning, killing 50 and wounding 53. The event is horrifying and traumatic to both those with connections to it and those without.
But I’m not here to write an emotionally-charged column about the shooting and how much of a tragedy it was; such a piece should be written, but I’m not the right person to do it. There are others who would fill that need far better than I, who knew none of the victims and have no personal connections to such horror.
Instead, I’m going to talk about focus, and how the media and the general public fixate on certain aspects of tragic or shocking events.
In our age of internet and online communication, breaking news is released in waves. The original story — often just a few lines about the event that transpired — is augmented as more facts are unearthed and investigation continues, over a period of hours and days. Obviously, this means that the original story is devoid of a lot of the facts that later emerge.
The problem arises when the media and the various personalities that inhabit it try to interpret the event based on the initial sparse information, and often this initial interpretation is spread as fact, even after more information is released.
As soon as the news about the shootings broke, each of these now all-too-familiar media factions rushed to classify the shooting to fit their preferred narratives, filling in the significant gaps in factual knowledge with self-serving speculation.
Some were quick to call the shootings part of a larger pattern of gun violence.Mateen’s father said that “this had nothing to do with religion,” and his ex-wife said that she thought he was mentally ill. His father also said that Mateen had previously expressed hate against LGBTQ individuals, and more recent investigation suggests he was also a homosexual.
In fact, Mateen claimed to have connections to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and he had been interviewed twice by the FBI although the cases were ultimately dismissed. ISIS sympathizers and pro-ISIS forums praised him.
Both of these are true facts, but neither of them, considered equally with all other known true facts, had enough weight to elevate a particular narrative or position. Nor, of course had anybody bothered to synthesize them into a cohesive, honest, whole story.
The better outlets stated the facts plainly as they came in, but it seems to me that much of the media picked which facts they wanted to believe, and then filled in gaps with their own speculation or spun available data to support their own causes. Factions of the media — and the varying personalities that compose it — ignored the obviously relevant issues of anti-LGBTQ violence in order to fret about terrorism, and vice versa.
The media, at its best, is a vehicle for information. At its worst, it reflects the ugliest of our prejudices back at us, and I’m concerned over how the latter disguises itself as the former.
Reactive speculation happens in the aftermath of practically every single tragedy in America, but premature conjecture on incomplete data and pointed fingers are unproductive.
It would be reassuring and comfortable if there was an easy answer, a sensible answer, a logical answer. It would be so much simpler if we could just immediately say “this was a hate crime conducted by an Islamic terrorist organization,” because that would fit neatly into already existing worldviews.
Jumping to conclusions leads to such short-sighted, xenophobic assumptions as “if the shooter was Muslim, then this must be a terrorist attack.” And maybe that is the answer, but assuming prematurely helps nobody and might perpetuate false information – which is worse than no information at all.
Perhaps by the time this column is published, our understanding of the context around the shooting will have changed, but we can’t yet reduce this to a story about gun control and mental health, or a story about hate crimes against the LGBTQ population, or a story about terrorism and Muslim hate groups without first being clear on the shooter’s motive.
All three points of view — and more — have been presented in the hours and days after the shooting, often to the exclusion of the other two viewpoints, when there wasn’t enough data to conclusively argue for any one side - or combination of sides.
It’s a lot simpler — and it generates a lot more clicks — to jump to easy answers. If the easy answers happen to be the right answers, that’s great. But let’s make sure that they are the right answers, first.
The media has a responsibility to be more thoughtful, more critical than the common consensus. It has a duty to inform, and yes, that does mean voicing the unpopular opinion or withholding judgment until the entire story is revealed. It cannot simply reflect back the half-baked conjecture that is so easily spun by politicians and those with an agenda, and it cannot build its stories on the prejudices and assumptions of the average American. By doing so, it loses whatever integrity it has, and rather than becoming a vehicle for truth, becomes just another seller of spin.
ISABEL KIM is a rising College junior from Warren, N.J. studying English and Fine Arts. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "Serious Business" appears every other Thursday.
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