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It’s Time to Change the Script

by on February 21, 2018 5:00 AM

Wondering what a good bullet-proof vest goes for these days? A fellow Penn State faculty member did some online shopping over the weekend and learned that for $200-$300, we pedagogues can buy the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we’ll probably survive if a disgruntled student aims a gun at our chest.

This is the dystopian world the firearm fetishists have foisted on us. You want safe schools? Put cops on every campus. Cover yourself in Kevlar. Better still, get a weapon of your own.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, don’t want to turn their school into a garrison. They would like Congress to revisit the quaint idea that if you want fewer people to be killed by guns, make guns a lot harder to get. Impressively, they’re organizing rallies and walkouts in March and April. Bravo.

But I’d go further. I’d like to see kids all across the country walk out now and not return until Congress acts to make their schools safer. I’m tired of letting politicians wait until the uproar dies down. I’d like to see relentlessness.

When I attended the women’s march in New York in January, I was encouraged to see that the outrage over the obscene presidency of Donald Trump had not died down. I’m encouraged that the MeToo movement has not died down. I’m encouraged that the Black Lives Matter movement has not died down.

Surely, we thought in 2012, the killing of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., would shame Congress into action. We should have seen then that shamelessness is practically part of the job description for membership in the House and Senate. We see it now, though. The kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School see it. It’s as if somebody has finally turned on the lights in a dark kitchen and we’re seeing the cockroaches that have been scurrying around all along.

The kids at Sandy Hook were too little to reach the light switch. The kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are taller. But they need help from the news media. Already, I noticed on Monday, The New York Times had begun to move on: The lead stories had reverted to Trump/Russia.

Trump/Russia is an important story, but the most frustrating thing about American journalism is the way it lurches from spasm to spasm, while giving short shrift to ongoing problems. News organizations are all over the latest tragedy or disaster or revelation, but when the bodies are buried, the flood waters recede, and the winds and flames die down, they move on, allowing us to forget what just happened, to not grapple with causes, solutions or repercussions.

I’d like to see a less reactive press, one that, in addition to covering what the movers and shakers are doing, calls attention to what they are not doing: no action on guns, no action on climate change, no action on racial, religious or gender discrimination, no action on bringing down the costs of medicine and healthcare, no action on poverty, no action on the political and environmental upheavals around the world that impel people to seek asylum or opportunity in more prosperous and more peaceful lands.

Out of habit, America’s journalism establishment regards such news coverage as a descent into advocacy, as if maintaining a habitable planet and moving toward economic and social justice were items on a progressive agenda rather than the goals of a sane society.

And while I’m bashing the American press (which I cherish), I would like to register my dismay at the way the killing spree in Florida was covered. Back in the late 1990s, criticism of the coverage of school shootings focused on two concerns: that interviewing and photographing victims is insensitive and possibly traumatizing, and that photographs and instant profiles of the killer may inspire copycat crimes. I saw little evidence that either of those possibilities was considered last week.

In a tone-deaf account of how it covered the Florida shootings, The New York Times boasted about the number of reporters and editors involved, and the speed with which it pulled together video and graphics. There was no indication that any discussion of ethics took place. Maybe the thinking is that with the kids themselves capturing the drama on their cell phones and posting it to social media, privacy issues are off the table.
As for the copycat problem, The Times and its peer organizations have decided, without studying the issue, as far as I know, that identifying the warning signs that could prevent the next tragedy outweighs concerns that one mass killing might inspire the next.

By now, as Times national editor Marc Lacey acknowledged, there is a “journalistic script” to be followed in these situations, just as there is a gun rights script that the National Rifle Association and its stooges follow in these situations.

Is there a script doctor in the house?


A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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