Sometimes it starts with a news alert, or a tweet. Maybe I’m in a meeting and it’s a few minutes before I hear anything. Each time the same thought crosses my mind: “Here we go again.” I have been a full-time journalist and member of the American workforce for 316 days and I’ve lost count of how many mass shootings I’ve covered.
Off the top of my head I remember Parkland, Santa Fe, and now the shooting at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana. I can think back a moment and recall Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs but there were plenty of others in between. Some garnered more widespread media coverage than others. This of course does account for the tragedies I covered in college and at various internships — the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the Pulse Nightclub shooting or the 2016 shooting of Dallas police officers for example — which provided experience to draw from coming into my first post-grad job.
I was a high school senior at the time of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I’d watched coverage of the 2011 Tucson shooting that wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed 6 others and the Aurora Colorado cinema shooting that killed 12. Mass shootings had already started to permeate my everyday news consumption but for a time after Sandy Hook, it seemed things might be different. I was wrong.
The circumstances may vary but the protocol is similar. First you hope for no injuries or deaths. When you learn there are, you hope the number is small. Then begins the sense of déjà vu, of tragedies blurring together, of muscle memory. First we’ll cover what’s happening, then we’ll cover the thoughts and prayers from politicians and people in power. We’ll write about the victims and reach out to survivors. Maybe we’ll cover a celebrity making a powerful statement about gun violence.
The Poynter Institute will put out resources for reporters reaching out to and interviewing witnesses and victims of trauma, my colleague will resurface her tweet reminding reporters of the importance of self care. I’ll speak with coworkers about calls to action and different ways to reflect solidarity with victims and concern across our social channels. Protocols for this are not uncommon. More and more publications are now putting them in place. Not because we want to, but because we have to.
Recently, Dana Loesch, the National Rifle Association's spokeswoman argued that "many in legacy media love mass shootings" because of the ratings. I think I speak for most in media new and legacy when I say this is not true. No one wants to cover the mass murder of schoolchildren. Tragedy does not necessarily equal traffic. In fact, an audience's attention span for coverage of these events is getting shorter and shorter. The day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was number one on Google’s search interest scale. Five days later, it was 100.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that 2018 has been deadlier for schoolchildren than deployed service members. The Gun Violence Archive reports that there have been 106 mass shootings — where four or more people were shot or killed, not including the shooter — so far this year. There were 346 mass shootings in 2017. Meanwhile the number of teens ages 12 to 17 killed or injured by gun violence has already reached 1049. In 2017 that number totalled 3,240. That is more than the population of my entire public high school.
I went to college and studied journalism because I believed and still do, that an impactful story well-told can make a difference whether it’s in the life of one person or one thousand. I spent a semester abroad learning about covering conflict and terrorism but I couldn’t have fathomed that a different kind of terror would continue to hit so often and so close to home.
In America especially, progress is slow but the news cycle is fast. It’s easy to become jaded and demoralised. People worry that calls for gun reform are falling on deaf ears. In covering the March For Our Lives earlier this year I was careful not to employ the “Never Again” slogan used by many Parkland students in part because I knew it wasn’t true.
The epidemic of gun violence in this country is complex. The debate is about more than just gun reform. It’s about domestic violence, toxic masculinity and resources for dealing with mental illness. I know there are reporters who have covered mass tragedy far longer than I have. Their experiences and their bylines far outnumber mine.
Still, I believe my job is as important as I thought it was a year ago but I’m writing this because these are the only words I have left, because words have always been my recourse and because I just don’t know what else to do. I’m writing this because I worry that at the age of 23 I’m becoming numb to trauma and tragedy. This should not be normal.
Mass shootings should never be something so commonplace that covering them could be listed on the skills section of a resume; less than a year into my journalism career, I’d sadly say my skill level can be categorised as “experienced.”