How the Media Mystify Tragedy

January 18, 2011



In the wake of the recent shooting in Tucson that left six people dead and fourteen others injured (including Representative Gabrielle Giffords), many in the public have reacted with a mix of grief, outrage, anger, and accusation. Some blame politics for motivating Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman; so far, however, the clearest answer is that he is mentally ill. 


President Obama, in his speech from Tucson, stated that “when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations—to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless.... Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.”

Obama’s words were eloquent, comforting, and well-intentioned. But are they true? The adjective most often used to describe Loughner’s actions is “senseless”—as opposed to other, unspecified “sensible” spree shootings? While the vast majority of mentally ill people are harmless, some of them are violent. Put another way, sometimes crazy people kill other people. This is a common fact of life that has been known for decades; it is not “senseless,” nor does it “defy human understanding.”


This tendency among politicians, the public, and the media to mystify tragedies is deeply entrenched in American culture. For example the September 11 terrorist attacks were also often referred to as incomprehensible, as if they were somehow beyond human understanding. A September 24, 2001, ABC News report by Dave Roos called the attacks “a series of unthinkable events that changed everything.” The Buffalo News referred to the World Trade Center attacks as “utterly unimaginable,” but declared that, with some thought, they could be “vaguely comprehensible.” 


Yet the September 11 attacks were not unimaginable. Certainly, the particular method the terrorists used surprised the public. But the idea of Muslim terrorists attacking thousands of Americans in the World Trade Center was hardly unthinkable; in fact it had already happened eight years earlier, on February 26, 1993. 


The news media commonly react to news of many tragedies, and shootings in particular, with shock, horror, and disbelief. But it is in many ways an act, a false disbelief, a pretend shock. Surely a news anchor who has covered national news for more than a few years—through bombings, disasters, assassinations, murder sprees, riots, serial killers, and so on—cannot be shocked to his or her core to see another.


Though phrases such as “struggle to understand” and “make sense of this tragedy” are peppered throughout coverage of tragedies such as this, they are simply glib news shorthand, meaningless phrases meant to fill airtime and to emphasize to viewers just how grievous a tragedy has unfolded— in case the audience somehow missed it.


Another example: A CBS News reporter covering the February 3, 1996, incident in which a U.S. military plane sliced through a cable car full of skiers in Italy talked of “investigating why twenty people died for no reason on the mountain.” What does that mean? The reason the skiers died is that a plane accidentally cut through the cable supporting them and they fell to their deaths: They didn’t die “for no reason.” Presumably the reporter was trying to imply that the accident was preventable, but in any event, even preventable events occur for a reason.


Just because an act is wrong does not mean that it is senseless , and we as a nation ignore the distinction at our peril. As Alan Lipman, professor of clinical and criminal psychology at Georgetown University sees it, the “senseless” label “casts a veil” that discourages attempts to identify volatile individuals. “In every situation, what you hear from the community is the following phrase: ‘I can’t believe it would happen here.’ But it’s not an entirely different community from which these actions emerge. These things happen with and to and among people like us.” 


A horrific crime can be deplorable and yet still be understandable. The idea that the attack on victims of the Tucson shooting was somehow beyond human comprehension is a media myth that does not honor their memories.