Newtown and The Media's Delusional Narrative on Caucasian Mayhem

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It wasn't too long into fall semester before white kids from cozy towns resumed brutally slaughtering innocent school children. As the routine goes, we collectively cringe, while celebrities tweet sweet compassionate gestures, and reporters hustle clean around the clock to prove that it was all just a mistake – that none of this was supposed to have transpired.

As was on display all summer, Americans care deeply about white gunmen. They want to know everything about them, from what church they attended, to their high score in Gears of War. As such, through June, July, and August, the mass media obsessed over cherry-picked atrocities, and in turn the public learned lots about guys like James Holmes, who slaughtered 12 in a Colorado movie theater, and Jeffrey Johnson, the jaded fashion designer who snapped in midtown Manhattan.

And then we have the utter crisis that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man – who the media scrambled desperately to identify – squeezed enough bullets into babies to alter the course of that community forever. At first, some reporters wanted so badly to peg the culprit that they picked a namesake off of Facebook and gave some unrelated character the scare of a lifetime. Since they matched a name to the maniac, the Fourth Estate has worked overtime to impugn his apparent psychological ineptitude.

It's become cliche to note that disproportionate attention is paid to Caucasian mayhem. What's less common, however, is crime coverage in minority areas that digs beneath the surface. If reporters spent more time spelunking the circumstances steering, say, the ongoing horrors in Chicago, then the 40 shootings and 10 homicides that took place there over Memorial Day weekend would have lit up the newswire. Instead, most outlets – if they covered the incidents at all – condensed the tragedies into a singular disposable headline. Forget medical records – we don't even always learn the names of black shooters.

This lack of meaningful context in urban crime reporting reflects a larger media failure. As public discourse bastardizes facts about violence in America, people are increasingly ignorant about their own surroundings. According to Gallup, which conducts polls on these issues, “Despite a sharp decline in the United States' violent crime rate since the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation's crime problem is getting worse, as they have for most of the past decade.”

The problem with this delusional narrative is that it trivializes the plight of those who actually face extraordinary danger on a daily basis. In reality, black people are six times more likely to be murdered than white folks. Translated in anecdotal news items, that means that as Caucasian bogeymen crept last summer, three African-Americans were murdered at a Houston nightclub, while right here in Boston, three women of color were slayed in a parked car.

Editors tend to justify the lack of deep reporting on black criminals with the classic “man bites dog” defense; that is to say there's nothing surprising about homicides in blighted ghettos. But if it's oddball occurrences that they're after, news organizations can always find wacky stories in the 'hood too. Sometimes, black people even get shot at movie theaters, as happened this past August in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and last year in Rockford, Illinois. Little ink was spilled on either of those senseless cinema sprees, though, and we know hardly anything about the perps involved.

Meanwhile, though pasty misfits like Holmes and Adam Lanza commit atrocities often, a staggering effort still goes into verifying the fallacy that follows all suburban rampages: that this was all an accident. Hours after this most recent mess, ABC News actually ran the headline, “Residents Shocked by Mass Killing in 'Adorable Little Town.'” Today, the Telegraph has a piece about how "intelligent" Lanza was. White psychopaths are smart!

Owly Images

Contrarily, if major national and international media bureaus used their resources to analyze the home situations and backstories of some young Chicago shooters, they'd probably find a less assuring message. In Cook County, they'd see schools with increasing racial achievement gaps, and a child poverty rate that exceeds 30 percent. Reporters would also learn that Illinois, which spends nearly $1.5 billion a year jailing people, has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. And despite the harrowing fact that roughly 40 percent of Windy City teens drop out before graduation, they might even see a school-related shooting or two.

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