Media Coverage of Gun Violence in A Post-Newtown Era

Hostage crisis in Midland City, Alabama (Associated Press, February 5, 2013)

Hostage crisis in Midland City, Alabama (Associated Press, February 5, 2013)

On Monday, February 4, 2013 in Midland City, Alabama a 5-year-old boy was finally returned to his family after being held captive for a week by Jimmy Lee Dykes, a disturbed 65-year-old man. What? You didn’t hear about this story? Well, here’s what happened according to Marcus Gilmer, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times:

An armed man [stormed] on to a bus loaded with school children and, at gunpoint, [demanded] that the bus driver turn over two children. The bus driver [refused] and [tried] to stop the armed man. The armed man [shot] the driver, killing him, then [grabbed] one of the children as the others [fled]. The armed man [took] the 5-year-old child, who is autistic, to an underground bunker on his property where a week-long crisis [began]. As negotiators try to convince the man to release the boy, they are allowed to deliver toys and medicine to him via a pipe to the bunker. Finally, after managing to lower a hidden camera into the bunker, officials are alarmed by what they see and storm the bunker. The kidnapper is killed, either by agents or by his own hand, and the boy is miraculously rescued, unhurt. (February 5, 2013)

Normally, such a dramatic, television-ready story would be all over the network, cable, print and online news. Neighbors, friends, family and co-workers of Dykes would’ve been interviewed to ‘flesh out’ Dykes’ character. Psychologists, whether they had met Dykes or not, would have assessed his mental state and reasons for his actions. Other psychologists would’ve provided us with various medical descriptions of childhood autism and its possible impact on the boy’s situation. Hostage crisis experts would’ve passed along information about what the little boy is going through and how Dykes should be handled. Police officers with stoic visages would’ve appeared on screen with ongoing updates, mostly repeating themselves. All the while, family members and friends of the little boy would’ve been seen crying and begging for the little boy’s release as numerous photos of the boy smiling, laughing or playing flashed across our television screens. This media scenario would have went on for days until the boy was rescued and Dykes was either captured or killed.

Well, none of that happened. Maybe because the hostage crisis took place in a town which according to the latest U.S. Census has less than 2500 people. It is also 104 miles from Montgomery, the state’s capital and 192 miles from Birmingham, the state’s largest city. So it’s probably fair to say that Midland City can be easily overlooked, even with a hostage crisis occurring in its backyard.

Not Just On Our Radar

The old real estate adage “location, location, location” seems to have applied to this story as far as mainstream media was concerned. I’m not saying that the media should’ve or needed to provide wall-to-wall coverage similar to the Sandy Hook Elementary (Newtown, CT) or Virginia Tech shootings. However, its coverage of this SEVEN-DAY hostage crisis was pretty anemic. It was almost groundhog-like, news would pop up for a a minute or two a few times a day then would disappear for one or two days.

Maybe more than a few media bosses were thinking ‘Does anyone really cares what happens in Alabama?’ Gilmer seems to agree somewhat with this assessment, but still questions it:

Part of the fact that so much about the Midland crisis was ignored either as a second-tier story or completely was because of where it happened. Trust me. I’m from Alabama. I know how people perceive of my native state. Sometimes, I can’t blame them. But in this instance, it was somewhat frustrating given the aforementioned universal issues at play here. This was not just a typical redneck incident….[t]his is larger than any regional bias; this is a national issue and we have to be willing to look past stereotypes, to be willing to accept both the smaller, hyperlocal context as well as the larger, national one. This is not some case of a drunken redneck brawl gone awry; this was a very real crisis with a larger social impact. (February 5, 2013)

Yet, it wasn’t just the location that played a significant part in the muted coverage of this story – it’s mainly because of what happened in Newtown.

Newtown Media Aftermath

It has been over two months since the December 14th shootings in Newtown, Connecticut claimed the lives of 26 people, 20 of them children. The live and ongoing news coverage of that story was fast, furious and a journalistic-fail on many accounts. Television and online media made a host of errors such as the name of the shooter (naming Ryan Lanza, the older brother, instead of Adam Lanza); posting the Facebook page of a Ryan Lanza from New Jersey alleging he was the shooter; claiming the shooter had killed his dad; that the mom was a teacher at the school, etc. Maybe the media’s limited coverage of the Alabama hostage crisis was also due to journalistic fear that it would go overboard like it did with Newtown – where unsubstantiated and non-fact checked information put the news media in a seriously bad light. So the media pulled back on the Midland story and may do so on several others for awhile as it continues to lick its wounds and genuflect on its  ‘Newtown News’ behavior.

The fact is, we are now in a post-Newtown world when it comes to gun violence stories. Cynically, all incidents of violence and their deemed noteworthiness will be compared to the Newtown shootings. Grandparents killed at home by a robber – well, that’s only two deaths; plus they were stabbed not shot. Crazy person enters a clinic and shoots 30 people – not that big of a deal because no one died. Five college students shot on campus – they’re not kids like Newtown and it’s not as bad as the Virginia Tech shooting. Group of teens shot while standing at a bus stop and one dies – that’s only one death, plus it happened in an “urban” area (code for ‘residents are primarily people of color’). These stories would more than likely fail the ‘Post-Newtown News Test’ which sadly appears to be more deaths + innocent-looking, mostly white victims + near major news city/market = more news coverage. Therefore one death and a week-long hostage crisis in Alabama versus the death of over twenty kids at a school house in a suburban town near a major news metropolitan area just doesn’t make the media sensationalism grade.

Then again, hasn’t this always been the case?

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