As the presidential election, civil unrest, and COVID-related mass panic and grief all vied for center stage during 2020, mass shootings in the United States were, for the most part, absent from mainstream headlines. This is not to say that 2020 provided any kind of relief from the scourge of gun violence that plagues America; in fact, even with the lockdowns and raging pandemic, 2020 was the worst year on record for gun violence in decades.
Now, amid the easing of COVID-related restrictions, the U.S. has turned its attention to the subsequent “normal” levels of gun violence in 2021.
As of May 3, there have been 210 mass shootings during 2021 in the United States alone. After a noticeable uptick in shootings in March and April, public outcry for gun control intensified. According to The Gun Violence Archive, whose definition of a mass shooting is four or more gunshot victims, over 50 mass shootings occurred in the five weeks following the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16.
On April 8, in an address from the White House, President Biden named the high rates of gun violence in America an “epidemic and an international embarrassment” and called on Congress to move on several pieces of legislation. “The idea is just bizarre to suggest the things we’re recommending are against the Constitution,” the president said, acknowledging critics’ opposition to gun reform as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.
In 2021, with the decline of COVID cases and with the absence of former President Trump as a consistent headline-maker, corporate media has shifted interest to gun violence. Despite its new fixation, mainstream coverage of the atrocities has fallen short of best journalistic standards. Many outlets were criticized for tiptoeing around or simply failing to acknowledge the racism at play in shootings where people of color were clearly targeted by a white assailant. The pattern of seeking to blame shootings committed by white men on mental illness has yet to ebb, and outlets like Fox have been providing a platform for people like Tucker Carlson to spout at large audiences racist and extremist ideologies. These ideologies can be attributed to many of the shootings.
Following mass shootings – at least the ones high-profile enough to make headlines – mainstream outlets have continued to favor sensationalizing the killers’ motives (the Indianapolis shooter had a love of My Little Pony, for example), while negating the repetition and underlying causes of the violence.
Conversely, independent news outlets such as Truthout, Democracy Now!, CommonDreams, and The Nation have been making up for the slack. Following the shootings in Atlanta, in which a white man killed predominantly Asian women, The Nation delved deep into the historical layers of racism and violence toward Asian immigrants and Asian Americans – the history of violence that led to the tragedy that took eight lives. “Rather than center such perspectives,” Jon Allsop for CJR wrote, “many outlets instead privileged the testimony of the suspect himself, and of police officers, who, as CJR’s Alexandria Neason has reported, have remarkable power to frame, and distort, crime coverage.”
Similarly, Democracy Now! ran a segment following the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis that resulted in the deaths of eight people. During the segment Simran Jeet Singh commented, “we minimize [these shootings] and think of them as one-off incidents … but I think there is something much deeper here,” acknowledging the specific white supremacist violence that targets communities of color. Where mainstream outlets fixated on shooters’ alleged motivations, independent outlets have continued to recognize the underlying causes that resulted in the violence.
Independent outlets have also reported on the connections between increased rates of mass shootings and the overall American obsession with gun culture – something mainstream outlets have largely ignored. In an essay for The Washington Post, political scientists Alexandra Filindra, Beyza Buyuker and Noah J. Kaplan elaborated, “White Americans are far more likely than any other group to own firearms and oppose gun regulations. To them, guns are potent political symbols.” They went on to state, “for many people, especially White Americans, guns are integral to who they are as citizens and what it means to be a good citizen.” The essay was quoted in a piece for Salon titled “Gun crazy: For too many Americans, guns are tied to masculinity, patriotism and white power.” These are hard-hitting analyses and headlines that continue to elude mainstream news.
The difference between mainstream and independent coverage of mass shootings and gun violence in America remains stark. Outlets like Fox News continue to question if gun reform will even incite change – see for example Blue Lives Matter founder Joseph Imperatrice speak on how ineffective he believes potential gun control reform to be, immediately following the mass shooting in Indianapolis. And outlets such as CNN and NBC hesitate to call out the deep-rooted societal fractures that lead to gun violence. Conversely, independent outlets confront the systems perpetuating gun violence to provide well-rounded, candid coverage on the extraordinary number of lives lost to shootings in the United States.
Image by Bill Marsh for The New York Times