Another week that raises the question of why some tragedies get more national attention than others.
Over the past seven days, America endured ten mass shootings that left at least 17 dead and 33 injured. These attacks bring the US mass shooting toll thus far in 2016 to 91 dead and 284 injured in 78 incidents. That body count surpasses the total death toll of the national spectacle that was the 51-day siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
Europe, meanwhile, witnessed zero mass shootings, leaving its toll thus far this year at 11 dead and 52 injured in just 13 incidents—figures that have held steady for 20 days straight.
The body count in America this week continues a recent spike in US mass shooting violence. It also marks the bloodiest seven-day span for such attacks in the nation since the week beginning February 20. But leaving aside the attack Friday morning in Piketon, Ohio, that left at least seven members of one family dead, the rest of this week's tragedies received limited attention at best.
This is not the first week this year that a fairly large number of American mass shootings received little or no national scrutiny. It's easy to interpret the paucity of coverage as reflective of the banal—by sordid American standards—nature of many mass shootings, most of which were your standard street, party, club, or drive-by attacks. To wit, on Saturday at about 2:00 AM, gunfire at a house party in Enterprise, Alabama, left four injured. That evening at about 5:50 pm, an argument on a street in Detroit, Michigan, escalated into a shooting that left one dead and four injured. Hours later, at about 9:30 PM, a volley unleashed upon a group of people outside an apartment complex in Orlando, Florida, left one dead and five injured. On Sunday around4:40 AM, disgruntled patrons firing into a strip club in Edinburg, Texas, killed one and injured six. Some twelve hours later, around 4:00 PM, a shooting at a home in Pelzer, South Carolina, left one dead and three injured. And on Monday evening, at about 8:45 PM, a street shooting in Long Beach, California, left another person dead and three more injured.
Still, some of the attacks this week, in addition to the still-unfolding terror in Piketon, seemed unique and horrific enough to draw more attention than they did. The standoff on Sunday morning between SWAT responders and a man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ended with the discovery of three people, including the shooter's brother, dead of shotgun wounds to the head in his home—as well as one individual injured outside. And on Tuesday, Chicago saw two mass shootings; the first, which occurred during the filming of a video for a local rap group, left one dead and four injured, while the second left one dead and three injured. These Chicago shootings came before the city hit 1,000 gunshot deaths and injuries in 2016 thus far, a drastic increase in gun violence over the same period in recent years even by that city's infamously grim standards.
Eager to understand more about why some attacks fly under the national radar, I reached out to Professor Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego, who studies the way the media handles such attacks.
"There's a large body of literature that examines the newsworthiness of homicides in general," Schildkraut told me. "The idea of a worthy victim is really what's driving the coverage."
Specifically, victims who are female, especially young or old, killed in wealthier areas, or killed by complete strangers tend to get more attention. Those trends hold, the professor said, for mass shootings as well, with the additional factor that a higher body count than the norm also drives coverage.
"The question I think news producers ask themselves is, 'Why is the audience going to care?'" Schildkraut added. That is to say, news outlets consider how much a mass shooting deviates from other such attacks, drawing special attention. But they also consider, the professor argued, what national audiences will feel is both sympathetic and relatable—what risks resonate with them.
Through this lens, the March shooting in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, that left six dead, including a pregnant woman, registered as both significant and relatable. Likewise, the seven deaths in one family, including women and children, in "execution-style" shootings in the rural Ohio town of Piketon have tripped initial media alarms. But a black man killing adults who lived in his home or were related to him in a Philadelphia neighborhood with a high minority population and a history of crime is another story. The same goes for just about any incident of gun violence in Chicago, which often (regrettably) seems to pop up on the national consciousness as little more than an urban war-zone.
"I think we [still] have to acknowledge that the loss of just one victim is one too many," said Schildkraut. "We can't have a visceral reaction [to mass shootings] that is selective. It doesn't really make sense."
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