In the last month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I live, there have been two mass shootings. Innocent people have died, the town has been shaken and it is currently the people, every day citizens, that are doing the work of communicating and conversing while the majority of the media fails to give us the information, language and tools that we need. Articles written and published about my town have been destructive and incomplete, further pushing a feeling of distrust, disgust and hate and painting us to be a community other than what we really are.
The Guardian published the article Colorado Springs: a playground for pro-life, pro-gun evangelical Christians the day after three people were killed and nine more injured at the hands of a gunman who barricaded himself and others in a Planned Parenthood. The article is a gross misrepresentation of the city I know and love, its words potentially pitting those unfamiliar with The Springs against us as it says things like, “rhetoric attacking Planned Parenthood and other such organizations is not hard to find in the city,” and claims that we have, “built [ourselves] a reputation as a playground for white, pro-gun, pro-life Evangelical Christians.” The article quotes a citizen as saying that, “I’m a little overwhelmed with the war zone that is my home,” but fails to mention that this citizen has also been instrumental in organizing community vigils, was a guest on a radio-broadcasted open-panel to discuss safety and community, and works at a non-profit in town. It does not mention that at the sign of trauma we band together, that we have supported the public servants that risk their lives for us each and every time we can, that we are a city working towards overcoming these terrible generalities. The picture that is painted with the Guardian article is that we are a lawless, wild-west town that prefers to allow assault rifles to be carried through the streets despite losing our own and that we blame abortion for the violent acts that are perpetuated against innocent people as if death is deserved in any of these situations. That is not my town. A mass shooting here is surprising and terrifying, not something we should expect. The Guardian article’s type of discussion is not what should be taking place in the newspapers.
Additional reports on the latest shooting in Colorado Springs show the power of the words, images and stories that we get from the media. A CNN op-ed piece, Incendiary Rhetoric can Produce Violent Results, states that the man who killed people at Planned Parenthood may have done so in response to the “heavily edited videos used by anti-abortion extremists to suggest Planned Parenthood profits off fetal tissue donation.” The words, the rhetoric and the videos that hit the mainstream consciousness at the hands of national news organizations have fueled more violence. As the CNN article mentions, this is “irresponsible” and when irresponsible rhetoric is used as a sensational headline that fuels more destruction and violence the media that promoted and profited off of the clicks and inciting anger shoulders responsibility.
Meanwhile, citizens are picking up the pieces without the support of the media and often because of the destruction the media has caused. It is the citizens that have shown their solidarity through social media, have arranged vigils and stood together to grieve and support each other. It is the citizens that have taken up their love and pride for our town and have chosen to express it and live it through donating to funeral funds, arranging community meetings, and writing letters-to-the-editor calling out the papers and news agencies that were not publishing or broadcasting what they should have been. It was a citizen that arranged for a collection of money to be used to feed the doctors and nurses treating the victims of this most recent crime, and those doctors and nurses are the neighbors, family and friends who live in this community.
As I write this news is coming out about a shooting in San Bernardino, California and I implore the media to carefully cover this event with the journalistic integrity that should be part of the profession. I implore them to not release information – like local news teams did in Colorado Springs – that is inaccurate, unconfirmed and causes more harm. I implore local and national papers to begin sharing information about how to talk about violence, how to talk about mental illness and refuse to play into the hate. I implore them to double and triple check the information they are about to share with the public and ensure that what they are sharing is true, verifiable, comprehensive, and in good conscious (which is not the same as bias). Stop fueling hate. Stop fueling fear. Stop playing games with the public for your clicks, views and profits.
[**NOTE: The media failed us again in San Bernardino as misinformation was shared with the public that placed the incident at the wrong location – placing the gunman at a Planned Parenthood rather than a health facility that helps the mentally disabled – and the LA Times published the wrong name of one of the suspects thus wrongfully linking them to extremists.]
Imagine if the heavily edited videos meant to harm Planned Parenthood had been verified before publication. The stories and the headlines would change drastically and the true criminal – the people who would manipulate information and the public by editing and splicing together hate-mongering and devastating information to gain momentum for their own destructive cause – they would have been called out and the violence against a healthcare facility would not have been incited. Imagine if news organizations didn’t publish headlines like At least nine injured by gunman at Colorado Abortion Clinic (Reuters, November 27, 2015) and more accurately published that innocent victims – one a friend and mother, one a veteran who just found out he was going to be a father, and the last a police officer who gave his own life to save others – were killed at a community-centered health clinic that offers medical care to women and families who otherwise would not have access to it – one that has increased access to healthcare while others have made it almost impossible and devastatingly expensive. Imagine if news organizations maintained the innocence of the victims instead of taking it away as if they were somehow to blame for what happened – what never should have happened.
The media plays a huge role in determining the discourse of the American public. What is seen and shared from local, national and international news outlets can crystallize fear, can paint pictures of hate, can spur on discussion and help define language or can stop a conversation in its tracks. The responsibility that the media has to be fair, accurate, balanced and conscientious is a weighty one in part because the influence of words and stories is weighty. What people know and how they process the events happening around them are influenced by what the media shares, how they share it, how accurate they are and how thoughtful.
The tenants of journalism also require that journalists publish news that is “comprehensive and in proportion.” Our current outlets are not proportionally covering violence. Our violent criminals get more airtime than the individuals that we have now lost forever, the one in thousands gets headlines and mugshots and fear-based policies written in response to them while the broken and hurting and innocent thousands get little to nothing. The balance needs to shift away from devastation. Instead of hearing over and over again about the man with the gun that killed the innocent people who were simply living their lives, we should be talking about the cause(s) that make it possible to lose two women sitting on their porch on a Saturday morning, a veteran riding his bike on the weekend, the couple receiving the news of a new baby entering their lives, the friend supporting her sister by being there with her through whatever she was going through, the police officer responding to a call and saving lives.
As a citizen and as a journalist I am disgusted at how so many papers, headlines and news shows are currently operating. I am disgusted at the politicians who think that people dying is a way to prove their uninformed agendas. I am tired of hearing that the men and women in my city are dying and I am tired of receiving news that does not help inform, clarify and serve the people, but rather confuses, misrepresents, damages and destroys.
I am calling on the media to do a better job and resurrect the role of a true fourth estate.
Are you too far gone to provide accurate, independent information to the citizens of this country and the world? Have you been so bought up and sold that you can no longer report with good conscious and are cemented in your support of politicians, corporations and lobbied agendas even when what you are about to report is wrong?
I, and citizens across the country, fear you are. Prove us wrong. Play your role and help us solve this heart-breaking problem. Do your part to bring the discussion forward, to make violence and loss and trauma history instead of every day.
Stop the fourth estate from crumbling.