The US media’s schizophrenic approach to mass shootings

Yet again, the Aurora shooting showed how far away we are from truly "color blind" media reporting on crime. It is time to reflect on how being a white, middle-class male may also be part of the equation.

Audrey Ann Lavallee-Belanger
10 October 2012
A shooting memorial in Aurora. Demotix/Gene Tewksbury. All rights reserved.

A shooting memorial in Aurora. Demotix/Gene Tewksbury. All rights reserved.

On July 20, 2012, twelve people died and many were injured when James Holmes attacked a crowd of moviegoers at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The coverage of the event by the American media distracted the audience from a necessary conversation about race in the United States. It is time to reflect on how being a white middle-class male may also be part of the equation.


The first distracting trajectory was the conversation about gun control. Only months ahead of the US presidential elections, politicians across the spectrum expressed their opinions on issues of gun ownership. Gun rights cheerleaders, quite unconvincingly, went so far as to argue that the Aurora shooting could have been prevented had other people in the audience been armed. Those statements by right-wing politicians fueled various debates, none of which addressed the real issue at hand: who is using those guns, how and why? 

The second, and more dangerous distracting trajectory lies in the portrayal of James Holmes himself. Many alternative outlets were quick to suggest that, had the shooter been a Muslim, the media would have hinted at his faith for somewhat ingraining in him a culture of violence and terrorism rather than casting him in a positive light. 

Double standards

To be sure, the act perpetrated by James Holmes does not appear to be an act of terrorism, if terrorism implies the “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective” (as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary). However, the 1995 Oklahoma city bombings, and more recently, the Norway killings by Anders Breivik, were terrorist acts committed by white people though they were rarely qualified as such.

The conversation about terrorism, albeit misused in the case of James Holmes, raises interesting questions. Why do we hint at a person’s culture as having triggered their violent behaviour while refusing to concede that white people could be socialized toward violence? The Aurora shooting reveals how the media, and by extension, the general public, make sense of events in highly racialized ways.

Assessing the impact of the media and its representations on the general public is empirically challenging. However, one can be certain that, had a Bangladeshi man ordered a fraction of the phenomenal quantity of explosives Holmes purchased, the FBI would have been knocking at his door in no time. Holmes, however, was able to buy dangerous substances through regular mail and quietly booby trap his house with them without arousing suspicion. Neither the neighbors, nor the mailing personnel or the company sending the explosives to a residential home seemed alarmed by his purchases.

Unpacking white privilege

In a 1989 piece called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh wrote: "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group." She provides a list of 50 advantages that white people have over people of other races in their everyday lives, advantages that seem equally ubiquitous today. Number 21 states: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

After a Korean student shot dead 34 students on Virginia Tech campus in 2009, some in the Korean American community expressed their fear of a possible revenge as a result of the act. Korean groups offered their sympathy to victims' families. The internalization of an individual act by an entire community is something unknown to white people. To put it more bluntly, we have yet to see white groups apologizing for Holmes’ actions. Why would they? Sadly, not everybody in this country has the luxury of finding the connections between an individual act and his larger community to be irrelevant.

As underlined by Hugo Schwyzer, a professor of history and gender studies at Pasedena City College, the media plays an important role in connecting an individual’s behavior to a socio-cultural stereotype. In the case of Seung-Hei Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, “media attention focused on the likelihood that a Korean culture unwilling to acknowledge mental illness helped drive the young man to commit the worst mass murder in U.S. history.”

Such negative socio-cultural stereotyping does not exist for whites. The description of Holmes in the news portrayed him at best as an outlier from his own racial group, and at worst as someone brilliant gone mad. Holmes, a former “smart” neuroscience PhD student was a “psychiatric patient”, described by friends as a “loner”, and a recent college drop-out. Those attributes do not draw any negative connections between his culture and his act. Quite the contrary, the articles and headlines conveyed a sense of surprise at an unexpected act that could only be the result of mental illness. Portrayals of shooters who belong to minority communities are less apologetic, as if their crime was expected.

A white pathology?

Schwyzer goes further and suggests possible ways of using the racial lens to understand acts perpetrated by whites. Like others before him, he notes that most mass murders in the United States have been committed by white middle-class males. By suggesting that “every killer makes his pain another’s problem. But only those who’ve marinated in privilege can conclude that their private pain is the entire world’s problem with which to deal”, Schwyzer argues that being socialized as a white middle-class male cannot be separated from an individual’s experience and thus can trigger violent behaviors, too.

This argument, which needs to be appreciated for its attempt at breaking the so-called color blind policy which holds the white race as its default, is not without its flaws. For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to treat white men as an insulated group. One cannot ignore the fact that women and other minorities have enjoyed, to some extent, more socio-economic opportunities in recent decades. Does that mean that white men are more prone to becoming violent, or that the notion of privilege will be a phenomenon across gender and racial lines?

Also, many countries have historically favored some group over others, but mass shooting does not seem to be an outlet used to express anger over disenfranchisement. Michael Moore, in an incisive blog entry about the Aurora shooting (named It's the Guns – But We All Know, It's Not Really the Guns) explains how the US is “responsible for over 80% of all the gun deaths in the 23 richest countries combined". So what is it about the US that allows for such public display of violence on the part of white men?

Scholarly articles on the correlation between white privilege and mass shootings are slowly emerging (although it has to be noted that scholars such as Peggy McIntosh will argue that the use of the word ”privilege” is problematic since whites did not earn their whiteness; they were born with it). In an article about the phenomenon of suicide by mass murder, Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel point out the fact that “only when white boys began to open fire in their schools did psychologists and journalists rush to diagnosis of mental illness.”

In addition to presenting James Holmes as an outlier of his group who could only have been afflicted by mental illness, the media understood how he conducted the act in a racialized way. CNN reporters were quick to point at how “cold” and “calculated” his action had been. In A Perverse Kind of Sense: Urban Spaces, Ghetto Places and the Discourse of School Shootings, Abraham P. Deleon addresses those very biases that distinguish between white and black crime by noting that “whereas the white school shooter is calculating, intelligent and conniving, urban crime is constructed as random, wild and tied to 'ghetto' issues such as gangs, reputation and revenge.”

In recent decades, some journalists have advocated for a “color blind” policy when it comes to reporting crimes, unless a suspect’s description is essential for the investigation. This color blind policy is a mere fantasy. We might not be as bold about making black and white distinctions in articles, but the understanding of violence is mediated in various outlets based on racialized understandings and socio-cultural stereotypes which recognize white as the norm. How else can we explain that all communities, except whites, internalize the behaviors of individuals of their groups and reflect on the impact that such actions will have on them?

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