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Can We Prevent Another Sandy Hook?

March 21, 2013

Flickr: Lumen Christi by Eustaquio Santimano

By Heather Gehlert and Ingrid Daffner Krasnow, Berkeley Media Studies Group

By now people across the country — perhaps worldwide — have heard the news of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The story has dominated the news for a solid week. My question is, Is the dedicated focus on Sandy Hook and related issues in the news actually going to help us prevent future violence, or will it simply run its course and lose traction over time, as has been the case with other national tragedies?

Unlike previous shootings, this one involved young children — all of them just 6 and 7 years old — leading to greater outrage and an increased urgency to act. A new grassroots campaign to stop gun violence have already formed in response. But at least one other major difference separates the Sandy Hook shooting from other recent gun violence incidents: the way the media are covering it. Media typically report on violence as shocking and unpredictable, giving the impression that violence is inevitable — that our theaters and shopping malls and schools are all potentially crime scenes in the making. Now, a growing number of journalists are asking what can be done to prevent it.

Reporters are asking whether regulations that determine who can access weapons and how should be changed, and they are questioning what role mental health and access to mental health services play.

“As gun sales have soared, spending for social programs and mental health services has plummeted,” writes Rob Waters for Forbes.com, noting that this combination has “created a toxic mix that is uniquely American.” Waters continues: “On the same day the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, a similar incident took place on the other side of the globe, but with a very different outcome. In a small village in Henan province in China, a distraught man went on a rampage, attacking children at an elementary school with a knife. Twenty-two children were wounded, some of them seriously, but all of them survived because only one of the attackers had access to guns.”

As the media pull back the curtain on the context for violence, it becomes easier to see that violence follows patterns. Research has shown us this for years, and new evidence supports previous findings. NPR recently reported on a study out of the Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, which looked at homicide from an epidemiological perspective. The study authors, who used infectious disease-tracking software to map out the “contagion” of homicide in Newark, N.J., over a 25-year period, found that not only is murder rarely random, it’s actually predictable.

Reflecting that reality in news coverage is critical because the way reporters talk about violence influences the way we think about it and what policymakers do about it. Without enough context, we tend to focus too narrowly on individual perpetrators. We imagine them as “unlike the rest of us,” the study’s lead author, April Zeoli, told NPR. We assume that they are “crazy, or substance users, or had a bad childhood” — that there is “some reason specific to the individual that they are committing homicide,” she said.

Doing so puts a safe distance between us and the perpetrators, but it also paints an overly simplified portrait of violence. This makes it hard to see a need for discussing the role of guns or mental health services, let alone other factors linked to violence, such as the quality of early care and education, the availability of affordable housing, and the concentration of alcohol outlets in some neighborhoods.

Violent crime remains the second leading cause of death for young people between 15 and 24 years of age. And having a substantive conversation about prevention is long overdue. After all, as Ezra Klein notes in the Washington Post, “If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.”

Continuing the conversation around prevention will be hard work. Longstanding stigmas around some types of violence, such as domestic violence and violence against people of color, keep people from wanting to talk about it or report on it. And pushback to calls for prevention abounds. For example, in response to a recent article discussing gun control, one person wrote, “I do not care about you or your kids. I don’t have any kids of my own, and I am not on this earth to raise yours. one of my handguns saved my life and I would never turn in any of my guns …”

Yet, however difficult, keeping prevention in the news is necessary. Only with an understanding of its context and knowledge that it is preventable can we start to see its potential solutions. The media must continue to report more frequently and effectively on violence as a public health issue if we are to continue making progress on breaking the silence around these difficult issues. Our very lives depend on it.

Reprinted with permission.

Creative Commons on flickr: Eustaquio Santimano