Reporting on the El Paso and Dayton Shootings: A Time for Change

Late in the morning Saturday, August 3, audiences began receiving news alerts with initial reports of a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. A total of 22 people have been confirmed dead since the attack. 

Less than 24 hours later, a shooter opened fire in a popular downtown nightlife district in Dayton, Ohio. The gunman killed a total of nine people before being shot and killed by police. 

While the motive of the Dayton shooter remains unclear, the suspected El Paso shooter is believed to have written a racist manifesto attacking Hispanic immigrants. The document was published on the online message board 8chan just 20 minutes before the shooting. 

In response, the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare announced it would no longer be granting distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection to 8chan, the same platform used by the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter and the suspect in a synagogue shooting in Poway, California to espouse their white nationalist ideologies. Cloudflare had previously provided DDoS protection to 8chan to prevent the site from being taken down by activist hackers. 

While President Donald Trump condemned the shooting in his televised August 5 address to the American public, stating that “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” he also argued that there was a link between the recent shootings and violent video games, mental illness and hateful rhetoric on the internet. 

In his tweets that same morning, Trump suggested that as a result of these shootings, Democrats and Republicans should work together to pass legislation that would tie background checks on gun purchases to immigration reform. 

In the immediate aftermath and subsequent days since the attacks, many media outlets have displayed a shift in their coverage of mass shootings, with more and more journalists identifying the broader political landscape in which the events occurred. 

Both NBC and ABC devoted the first half of their Sunday evening broadcasts to report the details of the shootings, while the second half drew a connection between the El Paso shooter’s manifesto to Trump’s past comments about Mexican immigrants. ABC aired a three-month-old clip when Trump laughed during a rally when someone from the crowd yelled out, “Shoot them,’’ after Trump asked what could be done to stop immigrants from entering the country.

Some news anchors ended their broadcasts with their own commentary, with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell saying, “After decades of mass shootings, we haven’t found the answer…  We will not live in fear. That would be admitting defeat.” 

In her recent editorial, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan revealed details of a conversation she had with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz on how journalists should cover mass shootings and similar events going forward. 

“The only consensus: We have to change how we report all of these,” Schultz said. 

As student journalists who have come of age in the post-Columbine era, we too are forced to consider whether we are called to do more than simply report on the facts of these shootings as they occur. We arrive to what Poynter’s Tom Jones refers to as a “crossroads” in which we are forced to ask “the most difficult question of all: Who or what is to blame?” 

Several outlets reported on the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, connecting it to the word choice Trump has used in both tweets and speeches on immigration policy. For example, The Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker said that “Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric looms over” the El Paso shooting, with both Trump and the El Paso shooter referring to the practice of immigrants crossing the Southern border as an “invasion.” 

In its coverage of Trump’s responses to the massacres, the Associated Press reported that Trump “ignored questions about the anti-immigration language in a manifesto written by the El Paso shooter that mirrors some of his own.” 

As reported by MediaFile Politics Editor Avi Bajpai, the apparent racial undertones surrounding the El Paso shooting sparked intense criticism toward the New York Times for “failing to contextualize Trump’s comments with his history of stoking racial tensions” in a headline that read, “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.”

Beyond the racial context of the El Paso shooting, some new outlets also took the opportunity to reiterate support among Democrats for increased gun control legislation. On the front page of its August 5 edition, The New York Post highlighted its editorial explicitly directed at Trump. The first iteration of the cover read said “BAN ASSAULT WEAPONS,” which was later changed to “BAN WEAPONS OF WAR.”

However, other outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, tied the El Paso and Dayton attacks, as well as other recent mass shootings, to “the social alienation of young men that will be harder to address” than guns or political rhetoric. 

CNN media writer Oliver Darcy called on Fox News and other conservative media outlets “to demand Trump call THIS violence for what it is: white supremacist terrorism.” 

In the immediate aftermath of an attack, it is certainly true that journalists should focus on hard news reporting, getting out the numbers and status of police action as accurately as possible. In doing so, journalists can help weed out conflicting reports and ameliorate confusion during the chaos of a breaking news event. 

Thus, one of the most sacred roles of journalists is that of truth-tellers— telling the ‘who, what, when, where, why and how” of any story. However, in the days following mass shootings and other similar tragedies, it is questionable whether we are able to fulfill this responsibility of delivering the whole truth to the public without asking difficult, but necessary questions and investigating the context in which events such as these occur. 

We currently live in a highly polarized media and political environment, with many looking to point fingers at who or what may be to blame. Journalists certainly do not have all the answers and it is not our role to tell the public what to think. Rather, we work to provide as much information as possible to allow the public to make educated choices as American citizens. 

However, as Sullivan points out, if journalists desire to have any true impact, we must question whether the current approach of covering every mass shooting “by the numbers” is truly the most effective way to serve the American public. 

Despite what Jones wrote, it is not necessarily the job of journalists to decisively determine who is to blame in moments of tragedy. However, reporters would be doing a disservice to the public if they reported on one mass shooting after the other in the same way, ignoring the links and connections that have become painfully obvious. 

As Sullivan writes, “Maybe we in the news media don’t really expect to help achieve different results. But if journalism is to be true to its public-service role, we must. And so, we must stop doing what we’ve become tragically accomplished at: Doing the same thing. Over and over and over again.” 

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