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Opinion: How journalists should cover US shootings

Michael Knigge Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Michael Knigge
November 7, 2017

Acts of mass violence in the US garner greater media attention than similar or even worse incidents elsewhere, particularly in Africa or Asia. As gun violence in the US becomes epidemic, it's time to change our coverage.

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Image: Getty Images

Whenever there is a mass shooting in the US, such as Sunday's massacre in the small Texas community of Sutherland Springs, the same phenomenon can be observed. Media from all over the United States and from many countries around the world, Deutsche Welle included, descend on the crime scene to cover the incident.

This sometimes creates a bizarre situation in which there are more journalists than locals around. And because the financial and human resources of news organizations are finite, when a large chunk of their time and budget go toward covering a mass shooting somewhere, other stories get less attention.

Similar or comparably more grave situations in Africa or Asia, for example, frequently receive less global media attention, or at least it seems that way. One could certainly argue that this is unfair and perhaps reflective of a Western-centric perspective that focuses on and attaches more significance to incidents in Europe and the US. Acts of violence and their consequences in relatively less covered regions – as well as political and social developments more generally – merit greater media attention.

Puzzling question

But failing to cover the all-too-frequent mass shootings in the US is not the answer. The gun violence now ravaging the United States must be called out for the epidemic that it is, and given appropriate coverage that focuses not just on its immediate aftermath, but on its broader societal implications. It is an epidemic that morbidly intrigues people around the world because it provokes a seemingly simple, but apparently unanswerable question: Why is the most powerful country in the world, the country which regularly produces the most Nobel laureates and is home to most of the world's leading companies, not capable of curbing its addiction to guns?

This question goes much deeper than a mere debate about gun control or gun rights. Eventually – and we are inching closer toward this juncture in the US – the issue will no longer be about gun violence, but of the massive failure of a government to fulfill its most basic duty: protecting its people.

Michael Knigge Kommentarbild App
DW Washington correspondent Michael Knigge

Once a majority of citizens conclude that their government cannot guarantee their protection, it will not only be difficult to convince them otherwise, but it could be a slippery slope toward broader mistrust in and malfunction of the government.

In a curious parallel, the US government's abject failure to protect its citizens is something the country increasingly shares with many others around the globe where violence and suffering are widespread — and often underreported. How can one fail to acknowledge this parallel, when mass shootings with scores of victims routinely occur in cinemas, concerts, places of worship or schools in the US without elected officials doing anything meaningful to stop it?

Doing nothing is a choice

We in journalism should continue to cover mass shootings in the US, but we should cover them less as a tragic spectacle or a rundown of each attack's minutiae and more as an epidemic affecting untold numbers of victims. We must spend less time reporting on the possible motives of the attacker – which often cannot be determined with certainty, especially when the perpetrators die – but focus on the repeated carnages as a continuing failure of lawmakers to protect their constituents.

Many people here in the US and elsewhere – even those personally affected by gun violence – have resigned themselves to the cycle of violence, saying that it can't be broken. This sentiment of defeatism is understandable after watching one massacre follow the next. But it doesn't have to be this way: Quite frankly, most lawmakers in the US have not even seriously tried to halt the violence. To do so, they would have to make it their key political goal, even at the cost of losing votes or ultimately their seats. Failing to act is a choice. And through our coverage of this carnage, the media should make that choice clear. 

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