A journalist warns: Look beyond knee-jerk media coverage of Newtown killings
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
A few summers ago I taught at my church's vacation bible school. I made some great fourth-grade friends that week. Since then, I've enjoyed watching them grow up.
One of them is named Mr. Don. Well, actually, that's not her real name; it's mine. You see, the two of us played the "switch-name game" all week. Much to the chagrin of the grown-ups, I became Miss Sydney and she was Mr. Don. Even now, when we fist bump each other in the church narthex, we call out the mixed-up names.
Not long after the Newtown shooting, I noticed on my Facebook feed that Mr. Don was struggling with the role of God in the massacre. Her elder sister, a sophomore in college, had recounted that her little sister had asked whether the shooter could get into heaven. If he could, Mr. Don declared, "I don't want to go to heaven because I don't want to be with him."
As a Lutheran, she'd been taught that there is a God, and that God saves the faithful through his grace. In our tradition, people are chosen by a forgiving, generous God, not the other way around.
So, things just didn't add up for Mr. Don. And they don't add up for me, either. It makes little difference whether we are demanding answers from God or merely shaking our fist at the sky: Terrified innocents should never be slaughtered under their tiny desks.
For that reason, I did not attempt to answer Mr. Don's question. Instead, I shared the message I've been spreading over distraught Facebook threads for several days now: "Just hugs."
Mr. Don replied, "I miss you."
That humbled and puzzled me. We'd been cutting up in church for years, but I hadn't known that, at a time like this, I might have a tiny role in a young girl's struggle with the precariousness of life. I think this is what she was saying: I need to be sure things are the same.
I'd missed a few Sundays at church, and Mr. Don was just reorienting herself, reaching out to one of the many people in her life who care about her. A few nights after the Facebook exchange, we chatted at church and then she danced happily off to the beat of a jazzy Christmas carol.
How different that contact was from the kind of interaction I've been observing on social media. Terrified, mournful people seem to be endlessly fanning the flames of their collective fear. Alone at their keyboards, they try desperately to "understand," to bring something "good" from this wholly dark act.
However well-intentioned, the media just make it worse. Journalism isn't good at unanswerable questions, at randomness. As it often does, it has responded with ubiquity, haste and predictability.
When that kind of journalism met the endless churning of social media, it produced this message: "Panic everyone; our children are sitting ducks. Nowhere is safe!"
I've been hearing it everywhere, especially in my yoga class. Oddly, in the usually quiet time after a session, mothers with pain on their faces discuss how "this kind of thing is out of control" and how they "can't protect the children." When asked, they can't remember any random violence in any of their own schools, ever. Yet they complain about how dangerous these schools are and how anyone can "just walk in and start shooting." (My town, Moorestown, N.J., has seen just two murders in the past 40 years.)
Into that conversation, the media hurl stories about how school security is woefully insufficient (to guard against what is the real question?) These stories amount to nothing more than rounding up the usual suspects. Any reporter who has ever written responsibly on this issue can tell you that school is the safest place many children will go in the course of a day. Walking to school is where more of the danger lies.
Successfully negotiating this life of ours means making an uneasy peace with chaos. This peace permits us to get into a car and drive to where we need to go (driving is without question the most dangerous thing we do in any 24-hour period.) If we have kids, we strap them in the back seat. Most parents let their kids ride bikes and play outside and swim in the ocean.
The difference is that there’s no shrill 24-7 news coverage about the total annual traffic deaths (30,000), or annual bicycle fatalities (700, with 85 percent of them under 16), or annual drownings (400). Parents seem to instinctively know that trying to make our children’s lives 100 percent safe will produce neurotic, sheltered, even paranoid adults.
So, what is the actual risk of dying in a mass killing? One noted criminologist who has studied this puts the odds of dying that way (not just at school, but anywhere) at no greater than being killed by lightning. (That’s about 11 deaths per year in the U.S.)
But we are wired to protect our young. This urge carries such power it can grab us even when our rational minds should be reassuring us. It hits especially hard if we’ve ever let our mind wander when the noon bus from kindergarten was a few minutes late.
How, then, do we negotiate a world where every terror can be hammered relentlessly into our minds from every direction, regardless of its actual risk to us?
The answer begins with looking critically at the realities of our lives and comparing that with what we are being told by the media. For instance, in the coming days it may be helpful to know that we are likely to hear a lot more about scares at schools and supposed breaches in school security. This, too, is about how journalists cover these stories, and about how people up and down the chain are understandably hyper-vigilant after a tragedy such as Newtown. Basically, the media begin reporting scares and false alarms that never would have made the news before. And, of course, those non-events spread like wildfire on social media. Assuming (and praying) we are spared any actual copycats, this will recede in time.
For a while, we may need to take an intentional break from the endless stream of sadness that will come as the parents bury their dead. That doesn’t mean we lack compassion; it means we have limits.
In this time, try using Mr. Don as an example. Reach out to people you care about and update your status the old-fashioned way. Social media can do a lot, but it can never replace the reassuring power of actual human contact. We are wired for that, too.