America occupies an exceptional place in the world among democratic countries with highly developed economies. And it’s not an exceptionalism we should be proud of.
Gun violence kills more human beings per capita in the US than anywhere else, 20 times more than our closest rival. And as for mass shootings, we’re number 1 . It’s not even close.
American civilians own more guns than the next 25 countries combined . The sum of this ghastly arithmetic — when a population with as many angry or unstable people as other peer countries has unfettered access to technology designed to kill — is entirely predictable.
Every day, American lives are snuffed out because consumer technology made for killing is used as it was designed. Most of us are unaware of the daily toll because it happens so often that it’s no longer news and we’ve become numb to it. Did you know that there have been over 240 mass shootings in 2022 ? Did you know that America averages 111 fatal shootings and another 210 gunshot injuries every day ? Did you know that over 40,000 people die of gunshot wounds every year , and that most are suicides ? Did you know that gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death among children in the US?
Probably not. These are not facts that audiences who’d prefer to hear that America is a functioning democracy want to hear. And our news media system obliges.
But every so often a particularly heinous shooting happens that cuts through the numbness that protects our fragile psyches. With Ulvalde, where 21 lives were terminated, it has happened again. Victims’ bodies were rendered unrecognizable by a piece of technology that, though designed to do exactly that, is easier to purchase than cough medicine at the grocery store. Yet our news media seem to prefer that we not focus on finding solutions or sustain difficult conversations that might help solve our shared problems. It seems to prioritize managing the feelings of niche audiences.
When most of us criticize “the media” we are usually talking about the things we don’t like about the media. And in this case, there is a lot to dislike about the way our news media covers – or rather provides cover for — gun violence.
There is a popular publication called The Onion that satirizes news media production in America. Sometimes when reading their takes on events and how the news covers them, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
In 2014, The Onion first satirized the way mass shootings are covered with a story entitled. "'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens." In the last 8 years, the story has been republished over 20 times. After Ulvalde, they changed the photo and ran it again .
The tragically evergreen story captures the dysfunction of the American press. Instead of providing useful information and context for citizens to use in the process of governance, our news media often diffuses any sustained conversation with subterfuge and noise because it’s good for business.
Those of us who study media know the power it has to shape reality and provide lenses through which to view the world, modeling ways to think and structuring how we feel about everyday life.
The stories we read, hear, or see in our news media provide us with heuristics, mental shortcuts to think with. I like to think of this as media constructing permission structures for us to live within. The media we consume says `it’s ok to think and feel like this or that about what just happened.’ In a confused and chaotic world, we crave this emotional comfort. And now that we carry it everywhere with us on our phones and can turn to it to confirm our biases whenever we’re confused, its power over our lives has grown.
Roger Ailes, who pioneered Fox News and the paradigm of niche news media production and consumption that our democracy is mired in today, knew how important news could be. As President Nixon’s media controller, Ailes saw what happened when the Fourth Estate fulfilled its democratic obligation and remained focused on Watergate. When our news media reinforced a shared reality, public opinion formed, consensus built, and men in power were held accountable. Ailes didn’t like the press doing its job. He created a news infotainment product designed to diffuse the power of the American press and cultivate audience loyalty by telling audiences what to feel about the news. He once said, “ If you tell people what to think, you’ve lost them. But if you tell them how to feel, they’re yours .”
Today, most of our for-profit news follows Ailes’ niche infotainment model to some degree, seeking to produce the structure of feeling that comforts their target demographic.
Producing infotainment as news demands content. Indeed, the function of partisan politicians these days seems to be providing this ready-to-use material for the infotainment spectacle. Rather than search for answers to problems from the wide range of perspectives that a democracy can offer, our media – at its worst – limits its perspective to “both sides,” meaning politicians from the two parties.
Knowing the tendencies of the news makes it easy for gun manufacturers to set the terms of debate. They pay politicians to deflect and stall the conversation about our gun violence epidemic to prevent meaningful legislation, they provide them with ready-made frames – well tested ones alas – producing the sound bites that our media companies use to create content for their audiences.
These ready-made frames distract by offering something for media figures to write about or discuss. And in TX, the gun lobby spends millions on politicians willing to supply these frames and ideas designed to deflect and diffuse the conversation about gun violence:
The real crisis , these paid shills offered, is that there are too many doors on schools.
The real crisis is how we deal with mental illness.
Pundits, Op Ed columnists, and Politicians who have incentives to feed ready-made content to the pro-gun audiences all sang the decades old NRA tune: the real crisis is that schools are a “soft target” or that there aren’t enough teachers trained in tactical combat. Framed thusly, the answer and feeling they model is always “hardening” ourselves and buying more guns.
And when these well-worn deflections and misdirection frames are trotted out, our compliant news media reports them and amplifies them. They treat them as if these were good faith suggestions that could provide results, as if variations on these same themes hadn’t been offered the last 20 times an easily accessible AR-15 was used to kill school kids.
They behave as if the role of the Fourth Estate in a democracy had nothing to do with helping us solve collective problems, instead hewing to the habit that their job is just to provide daily content for people to consume, worrying more about criticism for taking a position in the service of democracy than the social consequences of passive compliance to business as usual.
The result is that in today’s news environment, it’s frighteningly easy for bad faith actors to flood the media with such ready-made deflections, drowning out any national conversation with polarizing babble that diffuses and desensitizes.
If some public figure with enough of an audience does break through with something heartfelt or genuine, something that seems to engage people in the difficult work of solving our collective problems, the worst features of our media system quickly shut it down by modeling something else: shooting the messenger.
Think about what happened after Matthew McConaughey eulogized the lives lost in Ulvalde , his hometown, and challenged us to rise to the occasion. Broadcast live from the White House and disseminated broadly over television and digital platforms, he focused the national media on the tragedy, of the raw fact that the bodies of children — mutilated by the AR-15 doing what it was designed to do — could only by identified with DNA tests. He said that we should “start by making the loss of these lives matter.” He offered that this time was different, that there was a path toward a conversation, that we weren’t as divided as the media told us we were.
But what happened? The power behind the media content we consume went to work to shut down that “window of opportunity” that he hoped we had.
Media organizations, with demographics that would prefer not to think about the implications arming people with machines designed to mutilate bodies, started shooting.
As McConaughey left the podium, a Newsmax “reporter” named James Rosen screamed out a ready-made deflection frame in the form of a cynical question: “ Are you grandstanding ?”
On Fox News, which now ties their programming decisions to minute-by-minute ratings to give their audience exactly the news it wants to hear, Second Amendment programming is a regular feature. Fox framed McConaughey not as a Ulvalde native but rather as, to quote Fox performer Sandra Smith , “someone from Hollywood” who dared to talk about family values. Another Fox News segment featured someone calling McConaughey a hypocrite because he had previously starred in movies that had guns . The intended impact of such statements is to desensitize the audience from what he was describing, offering a permission structure to stop listening and/or shoot him again on social media.
But for-profit right-wing infotainment is not the only thing getting in the way of a productive conversation about gun violence. Even in legacy media, too often the story becomes about the politics of gun reform. Instead of discussing why America’s mass shooters overwhelmingly choose AR-15s to kill people ( the muzzle velocity is four times greater so killers with bad aim can still maim ) or engaging with sensible regulation that has worked well here and abroad to decrease gun deaths (things like assault weapons bans, licensing laws, and risk protection orders all do), gun violence is diminished by turning the issue into the same-old horserace story about partisan politics. No contextualization of the merits of various solutions drawing from the range of experience in America or looking at what works abroad. Just the same endless stories about which party is likely to win or what reforms have a chance at passing.
Yet despite the deflection and misdirection, something did happen for the first time in 30 years. It could be because public sentiment is overwhelmingly for action, but a bipartisan bill emerged and was signed into law at the end of June. Predictably, the bill ended up addressing many of the issues designed to deflect the conversation. And, predictably, assault weapons technology designed to kill people in war zones will still be widely available on American streets. In polling data gathered after 7 more citizens were murdered on the fourth of July by a disturbed man with an AR-1 5, 64% of Americans approved of the new law. Yet given the almost daily carnage, 78% thought it would do little to reduce gun violence. But hey, something is better than nothing.
To put it plainly, we get the legislation that our news media system affords us.
Until our news media changes the way that it functions, until we can have a productive conversation about how to solve this uniquely American crisis, the gun violence epidemic is likely to continue apace. Until reporters focus on the issue and what citizens want – which is overwhelmingly stricter regulation of weapons designed to kill – and stop amplifying the best misdirections, deflections, and ready-made frames that gun lobby money can buy , our capacity as a democracy to solve our shared problems will remain limited.
And until then — expect The Onion to keep running that same story.