News companies are facing an agonizing challenge in a year that has already seen, by one count, more than 320 mass shootings across the United States: deciding which atrocities warrant on-the-ground coverage and which don’t.
“There have been too many nights like this. Too many nights when I’ve stood at crime scenes like this,” NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt told viewers Tuesday from Highland Park, Ill. He flew there a day after an attack at a Fourth of July parade killed seven and wounded dozens.
But Holt was providing on-the-ground coverage of only the deadliest of 14 mass shootings that took place over the holiday weekend, according to a tally by the Gun Violence Archive. At least 62 people were shot and 10 killed in Chicago alone, not counting the parade massacre about 30 miles outside the city.
“There is no checklist, per se, as to whether we go or don’t go,” Holt told The Washington Post. When news alerts about the Highland Park shooting interrupted his holiday, he recounted, “the circumstances alone — a suburban July Fourth parade — immediately signaled this would be a major story. As the news unfolded, it became clear we needed to be on the ground.”
Many journalists have a similar triage process: prioritizing shootings based partly on death tolls, partly on a subjective sense of horror and shock. Inevitably, that means most do not end up receiving significant national coverage.
Reporters went en masse to Buffalo when 10 were killed at a grocery store in May in an attack that targeted Black people; and then to Uvalde, Tex., when 21 were killed at an elementary school less than two weeks later. But a June 4 shooting that killed three and injured around a dozen in Philadelphia’s entertainment district received significantly less attention from the national press, as did an attack that left three dead and many injured at a Chattanooga, Tenn., nightclub the next day.
“I think there are moments when it’s kind of like a collective earthquake,” said Wendy Fisher, an executive who oversees newsgathering for ABC News, which sent reporters to Buffalo, Uvalde and Highland Park. “You feel these events. They are very shocking. They have particular characteristics. It’s not so much a numbers thing. It’s kind of like: Where did they happen? When did they happen? The randomness of them. … It’s really the kind of collective shock factor.”
There is no universal definition of a mass shooting. The Gun Violence Archive counts any incident in which four or more people are shot or killed, not including the attacker. The benchmark to deploy Washington Post reporters to an incident is usually four deaths or more, according to Amanda Erickson, a deputy America editor on the National desk. She said editors monitor social media and local news for early reports, then decide on a coverage plan based on the size and nature of the incident. The Post can normally get a reporter to the scene within 90 minutes.
“Unfortunately, there are just so many shootings around the country that we have to be smart about using our resources,” Erickson said. “We can’t tell every story. All shootings affect a community, but we look for the impact on a community and beyond it.”
The reality is that some mass shootings are considered more newsworthy than others. A school shooting is different from a fight that leads to gunfire, as is a hate crime targeting a specific group or an act of terrorism.
Vickie Walton-James, NPR’s acting managing editor, said shooting stories that rise to the level of national attention are usually attacks “targeting people in places where people expect to be safe,” such as a school or a church, or targeting people of a specific race or religion. And editors have to figure out which can be featured, given limited airtime on regular radio broadcasts. “There are so many things going on,” she said. “There’s a war in Ukraine. There’s the January 6th hearings. There are these horrific acts of violence. And we are trying to balance them all and give them all the coverage they deserve, as well as remembering that we need to provide some joy for audiences.”
There’s also an issue of logistics, with smaller news operations more limited in journalistic resources. “PBS NewsHour,” for example, sent journalists to Uvalde and to Buffalo in May but not to Highland Park this week, partly because many employees were off for the long holiday weekend. “With mass shootings, it does come down to size and horror and scope, but it’s also the timing and who is available and when we can get there and the resources we are taking away from other stories,” said Sara Just, the show’s senior executive producer.
The mass-shooting epidemic is not new, although the frequency of shootings has accelerated in the past two years. Last year was the worst on record, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and 2022 is on the same pace. “I don’t remember there was a time there was this many back to back,” Just said.
With little hope that political leaders are on the verge of ending the crisis, news organizations are looking for coverage approaches more sophisticated than simply running from one massacre to the next.
ABC News announced last month that a team of correspondents and producers will remain in Uvalde for the next year to “provide ongoing coverage as the investigation continues and the community tries to heal.” CNN is also establishing a “Guns in America” beat at the network following the Uvalde shooting.
Inevitably, they are criticized anyway.
Leland Vittert, a former Fox News anchor who works for the upstart cable news channel NewsNation, used his show on Tuesday to claim that CNN and MSNBC are prioritizing coverage of the Highland Park shooting while ignoring routine gun violence in Chicago for socioeconomic and political reasons.
“Highland Park is a wealthy suburb. White, upper-class professionals are the primary viewers of CNN and MSNBC. That is a fact,” Vittert said in an interview. “[I] can’t speak to the motivations of somebody else,” he added, but “it’s important to point out what gets covered and why it gets covered and what that says about the priorities of the people who are covering it.”
Assigning priorities isn’t always so easy inside a newsroom. “We make a call in the moment,” said New York Times managing editor Marc Lacey. “We’re not perfect, but we make a call on how big a story we think it is, and that call is not based on where it happened, it’s not based on who is involved — it’s based on how big a human tragedy it was.”
Then there’s the issue of which stories get prominent placement in print. “If you covered every shooting on the front page, unfortunately America’s newspapers would be just chronicling shootings every day,” he added. “They’re so commonplace, so we have to raise the bar and feature only the most heinous of shootings, the most deadly, the most awful of these awful events.”
But the Times doesn’t only deploy reporters after a big, mass shooting has taken place, Lacey said. He was especially proud of a story that resulted from sending dozens of Times journalists to document gun violence in Chicago during Memorial Day weekend in 2016, when 64 people were shot and six died over three days. “It was covering a type of shooting event that we sometimes can ignore, and I think we have to focus on shootings that may to some feel routine,” he said.
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.
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