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When It Comes to Media Coverage of Shootings, Location Matters

The disparity in coverage of shootings this past week just speaks to a disturbing tendency in America to write off lives and tragedies that lack narrative resonance.

Over the past seven days, America witnessed seven mass shootings that left five dead and 32 wounded. These attacks bring the US mass shooting body count so far in 2016 to 291 dead and 1,037 injured.

Meanwhile, Europe suffered one mass shooting over the same period of time: On Saturday at about 5:00 PM, at least 15 men came to the home of a businessman in Yekaterinburg, Russia, to confront him over a dispute he'd had with guests at a local Roma wedding the previous night. The businessman responded by opening fire with a Kalashnikov-type weapon, killing two people and injuring seven before fleeing. He later turned himself in to local authorities, claiming the large group shot first and that he'd acted in self-defense. This incident brings the continent's body toll in such attacks so far this year to 43 dead and 136 injured.

Although America witnessed a couple of equally deadly and one much bloodier mass shooting than that in Yekaterinburg this week, none of them succeeded in drawing the same level of national attention. That's likely because all of this week's US attacks largely conformed to standard narratives of violence—and many lacked significant, eye-catching public details as well.

At about 3:30 AM on Saturday, a street shooting in Chicago, Illinois, left four people injured. Around 2:40 PM that day, a shooting at a housing project in Wilmington, North Carolina, wounded another four. The following morning, at about 3:00 AM, a shooting in a bar in Roanoke, Virginia, killed one man and left ten others injured. Then on Monday at about 2:00 AM a shooting in a parking lot outside of a packed event center in Clive, Iowa, left two dead and two injured. That evening, at about 5:30 PM, a street shooting in Reading, Pennsylvania, left four more injured. Later that night, another street shooting at about 10:45 PM in Chicago, Illinois, left two more individuals dead and three injured. And finally, at about 7:00 PM on Thursday, a shooting outside a home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, left five more individuals injured.

One recent attack in America has rivaled Yekaterinburg in terms of national and international media coverage—but it was not a mass shooting. On Thursday, a 14-year-old girl shot a fellow student (non-lethally) at an Alpine, Texas, high school before killing herself, triggering a huge response—in which one law enforcement officer accidentally shot another (non-lethally)—and a flurry of coverage. Despite its low body count, this incident likely attracted more attention than, say, the much bloodier Roanoke bar shooting earlier that week because, as Jaclyn Schildkraut, a specialist on media coverage of mass shootings at the State University of New York—Oswego recently explained to VICE, schools hold a special place in our national conscience. They're full of people we think of as especially tragic victims in a space that should be safe, but that also reminds us of numerous prior horrors. The power of these readings and memories allows even a limited shooting at a school to draw significantly more attention than larger incidents, even those involving kids or teens, in more routine, less sympathetic and tragically resonant locations.

Especially toward the start of a new school year, the pull to focus on the Alpine shooting makes sense. But ultimately the disparity in coverage over this past week just speaks to a disturbing tendency in America to write off lives and tragedies that lack narrative resonance. On a logical level, we know that a life lost is significant no matter where it occurs, and that the largest mass shootings perhaps ought to be those that draw the most attention, barring truly unusual and significant circumstances within others. However until we find a way to reconcile our logical brains with our sensationalist and story-hungry brains, America will continue to allow many mass shootings and lives lost therein to slip through the cracks. And with those attacks, deaths, and injuries largely unnoticed, we allow a major national epidemic of violence to fester on.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.