Shooting Our Minds Out

I’ve been in enough newsrooms to hear many variations on this question: “O.K.; how are we going to play this story?”

That is, where in the hierarchy of the day’s/week’s news will we place our coverage of this deserving item? How much space do we have for it, either in seconds or column inches? Will that be enough to discharge our obligation of fair and complete reporting, while also leaving enough space to achieve the legitimate business concerns of the publication (read: ads)? If not, what adjustments do we need to make?

The implication was, we’re professionals. Whether this is hard or easy, we have to do it right. Of course, I covered sports, specifically golf. There are no cultural stakes there. But in hard news, the word “play” never feels right, because news judgment is not a game. In this day and age, it shapes opinion and sends people down one of two flowchart lines: action or apathy.

It’s not a game, but that doesn’t stop some players from withdrawing. Witness — if you can — the shoddy coverage of the shotgun shooting at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore. CNN, the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in news, appears to have excised that part of Maryland from the world. In prime morning time today, starting at 8 a.m. ET, we got 35 minutes on two stories — the Republican National Convention and Tropical Storm Isaac. Big stories, to be sure…but nothing on the Maryland shooting? A 30-second, second-day story?

Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Silence. Nothing on TV; webpage devoid of even a reference. In-site search turned up the words “Maryland” and “shotgun” in stories before the date of the August 27 Perry Hall shooting.

Lest you think CNN is alone, the New York Times buried the matter three clicks deep on its site. Their entire coverage is about 60 words of Reuters wire copy on page A15 of the “real” paper. The Washington Post, about an hour away from the story, at least put a link to the story in the trending bar of its website — but didn’t trouble to send over a reporter; Associated Press wire copy is all we get.

This might be excusable had not the Maryland shooting been the latest in a string of firearm horrors that include the Colorado movie theater shooting (July 20), the Milwaukee Sikh temple shooting (August 5), and the Empire State Building debacle in New York City (August 24). But I don’t think so. Add the Trayvon Martin tragedy from February, and you have a critical mass of people dead and in critical condition; a newsworthy parade of shocking events whose genesis, be it coincidence or something worse, is irrelevant to its news value.

But I’m not here to indict media decision makers, most of whom have long ago flung off whatever responsibility comes with their immense power and public trust. Rather, I’m concerned with what we have let media’s horrifying lack of values do to us.

Think about it. By their sheer number and frequency, the use of a device that creates a controlled explosion for the purpose of propelling a killing dose of metal at another human has become a great national meh. We’re simply on to the next story, to the repeated huffs and chest puffs of a political convention, to the gusts of wind in advance of a storm, to fucking Snooki’s fucking baby.

It is difficult, in a world where information is the only wealth fairly available to all, to remember that we only know what the information providers tell us. We have no control over how they “play” stories, or whether they do at all. Questioning is out of style; it takes time, it crushes our groove, it backs us up against a problem that seems impossible to solve.

But we play this game for keeps: we’re humans, and we’re professionals at it. We have to get it right.

A “device that creates a controlled explosion for the purpose of propelling a killing dose of metal at another human” sounds like something dangerous, something that should be regulated at least a little, right? Our shorthand for it, gun, has come to mean any number of other things — to some, a right as inalienable as speech. There is no point reviewing the wrongheadedness of those arguments here. Yes, people kill people, but it’s harder if they don’t have guns to do it with. And it should be harder to get a gun than to get a drivers license. We do not generally let the severely mentally incompetent drive cars. They get guns with ease.

Responsible gun owners, however outraged they may be, allow their voices to be drowned in National Rifle Association money. That organization’s ceaseless lobbying (do you have the right or resources to sit down with your congressman and/or take him out to dinner?) and insistence that any regulation is a slippery slope to prohibition has, for decades now, placed commerce and convenience many rungs above human lives. If gun owners are as responsible as they claim to be — and I have no doubt that a great many are — they will turn their backs on NRA cant and insist that access to guns be controlled so that the mentally unstable cannot skirt the system, and disreputable dealers can’t help them by looking the other way in pursuit of a sale.

We hear very often from the gun-owning right that freedom is not free. They utter this truth as they put rifles into the hands of young men and women (often not their own children, if they can manage it) to send them to war. They are right. But neither is the freedom to own weapons free of obligation. Submit to reasonable regulation. Help write it. Help enforce it. Separate yourself from those whose conduct besmirches you. Save lives.

Whether this is hard or easy, we have to do it right. — Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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