Orlando Shooting: In a Search for (Simple) Answers

Published: 17 June 2016

Region: US, Worldwide

By Dasha Ilic

Orlando_LGBTIt was the deadliest mass shooting in the US since the 9/11 attacks. That is the fact that every reporter could agree on. Almost everything else in the media coverage of the mass killings in a gay club in Orlando was subject to interpretation.

In the worldwide media coverage a few key angles  stood out: homophobia, Islamic terrorism, mental illness and gun control. By simplifying and rushing to give answers in the early hours after the attack, some media not only gave a false portrayal of what happened in Orlando including who the attacker and his victims were, but also jumped into stereotypes and stigmatisation. Answers, let alone simple answers, weren’t available.

“Everyone wants to find ‘the’ explanation of the Orlando massacre.  But no one ever will.  It’s about radical Islam, but it isn’t.  It’s about ‘internalised homophobia’, but it isn’t.  It’s about America’s gun fetish, but it isn’t.  It’s about alienated minority communities, but it isn’t,” says for the MDI website Eric Heinze, professor of law and humanities at Queen Mary University of London. “None of those factors explain the tragedy because all of them converge to explain it in a way, in a sense, to some degree.  To see such an atrocity as an inscrutable mix of these causes—each of them already deeply complex in itself—is to confront uncertainty where we crave certainty, and ambiguous texture where we crave simple formulas and soundbites.  For every lonely, un-read blogger posting, ‘Hold on, let’s take a closer look’, there are ten Donald Trumps, cheered on by swarms of supporters, spouting ‘the real answer’,”says Heinze.

Media narrative in the United States recently became swamped by the rise and popularity of a former reality-show star, businessman and now the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. It is not surprising that Fox News, one of the outlets endorsing Trump,  emphasised the attacker Omar Mateen’s Muslim origins. CNN through the words of Senator Marco Rubio  declared that “this was clearly terrorism and that radical Islamic beliefs were behind the shooting”. The Washinton Post reported that Mateen “was not a stable person and showed signs of emotional trouble”. The attacker’s  Facebooks posts, his ex-wife’s claims against him and hearsay quotes found their way into the public sphere. Still, what was missing was a distant and professional approach to what was happening. Journalists should have had asked many questions and abstained from rushing to conclusions.

As Marc Caputo, a Politico reporter, has said for the Columbia Journalism Review: “Terrorists pay attention to the news. Madmen pay attention to the news and that three-hour window in which the gunman held police at bay is worrisome. I think it’s appropriate to ask the questions about whether the protocols and the judgment calls and the procedures were properly made, vetted, and whether they’re adequate.”

Refusal to acknowledge that the victims in Orlando were members of LGBT community and that the attack was a hate crime was also present in the news. This represents not only an attempt to mask the motives of this mass killing but it also adds to prevailing homophobia in certain media outlets. “On Sky News last night, I realised how far some will go to ignore homophobia,” wrote Owen Jones in the Guardian after leaving the TV show. “The presenter continually and repeatedly refused to accept that this was an attack on LGBT people. This was an attack “against human beings”, he said, and “the freedom of all people to try to enjoy themselves”. He not only refused to accept it as an attack on LGBT people, but was increasingly agitated that I – as a gay man – would claim it as such,” wrote Jones.

The Washington Times’ Margaret Sullivan analysed the media coverage through the politics of blame, as well as through fast-developing, online news environment.

“If you favored gun control, this was further evidence of the legislative failures to stop slaughter. If you were wary of Muslims, this was an opportunity to paint an entire faith as terrorists. If you supported gay rights, this was a hate crime targeting the LGBT community. In too many cases, news outlets were busy amplifying the politics of blame,” reports Sullivan.

Responsible, professional and ethical reporting requires journalists not only to check facts, provide context, ask all possible questions and explore all the potential angles of the story, but also to slow down and think twice before  providing answers and simplifying the not-at-all-simple reality of the modern world.