Reactionary coverage of mass shootings is irresponsible

by Mike Heral

News consumers expect professionalism and answers from media outlets. This is never truer than during times of crisis, when even those not accustomed to watching the news tune in. Such was the case on Monday when contractor Aaron Alexis allegedly became the latest American to commit mass murderer.

For those who don’t know, Alexis is accused of killing 12 people during a shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. During coverage of the shootings, unprofessionalism was the order of the day in America’s newsrooms. Vacuous talking heads spouted an unending stream of speculation instead of using journalistic standards and reversing America’s declining confidence in the media. But, hey, news producers have 24 hours to fill. Facts just don’t stretch far enough to cover all that time, so it’s usually spent with finely coifed personalities shouting at each other.

I was repulsed as I viewed broadcasters contemplate Alexis’ status as a gamer. Every news outlet surmised that video games must have set Alexis on his dastardly mission to shoot sailors and contractors as if they were nothing more than video game targets.

This wasn’t the first time pundits nailed video games to the cross of public shame. In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people at Columbine High School. That day’s shocking events started a cycle of school shootings that continued through last December’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza slayed 26 people. In each case, “so-and-so played video games” was breathlessly whispered to the nation as a rationale for the gunman’s distressed mental state.

Heading this clown circus was former “The View” host and current “Fox & Friends” host Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who said the Navy Yard killing proves the U.S. needs a video game registry more than it needs to ensure bona fide weapons of mass destruction—meaning guns—are licensed.

If video games incubate killers, then let the media explain these events:

  • Charles Whitman killed 16 people at the University of Texas in August 1966, almost a decade before the Atari 2600 mesmerized children with its black-and-white beeping “Home Pong” video game.
  • The plague of post office shootings beginning in the mid-1980s. Could the killers who had “gone postal” been goaded into their heinous acts by Mario, the seemingly benign plumber?
  • James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people at a San Ysidro McDonald’s in July 1984. “Pac-Man,” “Space Invaders” and “Asteroids” ruled the video game market back then. “Grand Theft Auto” wasn’t even a thought in its creators’ minds.

Maybe, just maybe, these too-quick pronouncements blaming societal ills on video games represent a prime example of erroneous causation.

While blaming violent video games may initially seem like a scientifically sound argument, it isn’t. To date, there hasn’t been a single research study that scientifically concludes that exposure to video game violence translates to committing barbarism in the real world. One of the more referenced studies blaming video games is a Brigham Young University study determining that video game playing can be correlated to anti-social behavior. However, that study loses credibility when it also concludes that video game playing leads to drug use. Maybe one day a valid study will definitively deduce that video games provide a training template for tomorrow’s sociopaths. However, until that day arrives, the media needs to look elsewhere for a scapegoat.

If the media want to responsibly report on what causes disturbed individuals to kill, it needs to research America’s sorry mental health standards. The one thread connecting all mass killers to each other is a history of psychological problems. These were people who needed to be hospitalized for safety’s sake, but they weren’t. They were allowed to roam freely and people died because of it.

The U.S. doesn’t want to face up to its responsibility to fund mental health care at a level where Rhode Island police officers hospitalize Alexis instead of merely taking a report after he tells them he’s hearing voices. Or give Veterans Affairs the resources necessary to properly respond to Alexis’ repeated calls for psychological services.

Instead of stretching credibility to assign blame, the media needs to remind society that it’s playing with people’s lives when it refuses to fund services. That’s the real takeaway from yet another preventable mass shooting.

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