By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
It’s called “the Texas massacre,” the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. The 18-year old gunman was killed by police.
That came 10 days after another 18-year-old shot 10 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and injured three others, livestreaming his attack on Twitch.
The Uvalde shooting came just three years after the 2019 “Texas Walmart shooting” in El Paso, where 20 people were killed and 26 injured. Gov. Greg Abbott called it “one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas.” It was believed to be the eighth deadliest in modern U.S. history at the time.
The Texas Walmart shooting came less than 24 hours before another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, where a 24-year old man shot and killed nine people, including his sister, and wounded 17 others near the entrance of a bar in Dayton. The shooter was killed by police.
Deadliest high school shooting
In 2018, an expelled student entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. It was described at the time as the deadliest high school shooting in United States history.
In 2017, a gunman opened fire inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.
Texas stands out at the scene of several mass shootings.
Typically, in the wake of such slaughter, come pleas for action, including gun control. You might think, given recent history, even citizens of the Lone Star State might lean in that direction.
But a 2013 study found “Texans’ dueling attitudes on guns.”
Guns and culture
“Guns are a major piece of both the present and historical state culture,” said The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And they are believed to be enshrined in the Constitution as a right — people tend to hold some of their strongest attitudes about topics related to their identities and/or rights.”
A poll on Texans’ attitudes toward gun control found “the same ambivalence about gun regulation that was made apparent in the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass background check legislation ostensibly supported by 90 percent of Americans in national polls,” according to the report.
It would be wrong to call all Texans gun-lovers, since 78 percent said they supported background checks, although only 54 percent said they would like to see stricter gun control laws. Ten percent said they would like to see gun control laws relaxed.
“Taken together, about half of the background check supporters registered something akin to a general opposition to more gun control laws, or at least seriously questioned their effectiveness,” said the Texas Politics Project.
Gun violence hot spot
Given recent history, Texas might be seen as a hot spot for gun violence. It seemed reasonable to consider what Texans think about guns, and the toll in life they take. The poll indicates that Texans treasure their gun-toting culture and are not likely to change their minds about that.
But let’s not single out Texas. Gun violence in schools has been going on for a long time in the United States. What seems so tragic about them is that the victims often are innocent, defenseless children. Maybe that’s one of the reasons shooters target them. Killing children causes unimaginable grief and loss. Another potential reason is that schools might be the setting where the shooters seek revenge for bullying, slights or their own grievances.
One of the first highly publicized mass school shootings happened at Pearl High School, in Pearl, Mississippi, on Oct. 1, 1997. There probably were others before, but Pearl was a sign of things to come. The 16-year-old killer began by fatally stabbing and bludgeoning his mother, then went to the local high school and opened fire on his classmates, killing three and wounding seven.
Not insane, angry
The teenaged shooter allegedly gave this message to a friend: “I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do?”
Motives seldom are as clear as that appears to be. Shooters often die soon after their attacks, leaving the world to wonder what drove them to commit such heinous acts.
School shootings continued. A 23-year-old senior and English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University shot and killed 27 students and five faculty members on April 16, 2007, then later died by suicide. Shooting scenes often are chaotic. Unaware of the gunman’s identity, police pursued the boyfriend of one of the female victims, believing the shooting was an isolated domestic violence crime.
On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man killed 20 first graders and six school employees at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, then turned the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he killed his mother in their home.
At the time, Sandy Hook was the second-deadliest mass shooting in the United States, after the 2007 Virginia Tech assault in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Such outbursts of gun violence often are followed by suggestions to confront the growing wave of school shootings.
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Richmond suggested “It’s time to rethink coverage of school shootings,” on Feb. 14, 2019.
“Schoolhouses are becoming fortresses equipped with surveillance cameras and bulletproof desks, with teachers serving double duty as armed guards,” she wrote. “Children are being pushed into terrifying drills to prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting that is statistically unlikely.”
The 2022 Uvalde shooting showed soon enough that such attacks are more than theoretical.
“Some of those trends may be fueled in part by sensational coverage of such violence,” Richmond wrote. “And a growing chorus of voices – including those of survivors, victims’ families and researchers – is urging the news media to rethink the way they approach mass shootings, including those that occur at K-12 campuses and colleges.”
Richmond points to a 2018 article appearing in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist journal examining implications of media coverage of mass killers.
Major media organizations in recent years have wondered if their coverage of mass shooters actually increases the risk of future attacks, and asked how their reporting can be improved, said the article’s authors, Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis.
They found that 149 experts urged media to stop publishing the names and photos of mass killers, except during searches for suspects, but continue reporting the other details of these crimes as needed. They found that a high percentage of mass killers are suicidal and also urged media to avoid covering the shootings in a way that might invite potential imitators, or “copycat” killers.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
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