In the Aftermath of a Shooting

Aside from a brief comment in an earlier post, I haven’t written anything here yet about the Virginia Tech shooting. This is because the actual event involves a lot of victims in a crime that seems to have nothing to do with the content of this blog, and real death is something personal, uncomfortable, and often very awkward to discuss. I have had to deal with real death recently myself, and it’s not something I want to talk about right now, so I can’t imagine that the victims’ families appreciate all the attention. Whether we like it or not, this isolated incident has become a national story, and the cultural and political implications of major events are my business. Before I go any further, then, I just want to extend my condolences to anyone affected by the recent tragedy.

That’s all I’ll say about the event itself. Today, I want to talk about what the news had to say about it.

As noted in an earlier post, Fox News turned to anti-game lawyer Jack Thompson in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting. He offered a take on the shooting based on speculation and either misinterpretation or misrepresentation, claiming that the event was triggered by violent video game play. As it turns out, however, no games were found in the killer’s room, and media outlets have now backed away from the video game angle. The Washington Post even went so far as to delete a small mention of games from its original article.

Jack Thompson, however, was not the only one contacted by a news outlet in the wake of the killing. A newspaper editor contacted Smartbomb co-author Heather Chaplin about a day after the shooting for her insight on video game violence. Chaplin asked if there was even any link between the shooter and games; a day later, when it was clear that there was no such link, the editor admitted that the request was passed along by another editor who saw some mention of games on television.

Quite simply, this is agenda setting at its worst—or it could have been. Chaplin does not mention whether the paper ever ended up publishing anything that mentioned games, so it’s possible that the gatekeepers caught the inaccuracy in time. Regardless, it’s lamentable that seeing one report with bad fact-checking was enough to start soliciting articles attaching a tragic event with a popular controversy.

Will this be a wake-up call to news agencies that connecting specific violent crimes to game play is misleading and perhaps even unethical? To a certain extent, it’s even more noteworthy that this college-age shooter doesn’t play games—not because most violent offenders play games, but because most young men do. It makes perfect sense to discuss the potential link between games and violence in a news report about media effects research, game ratings, or game legislation, but that connection is a matter of speculation when reporting on specific instances of violence, even in cases where offenders do play violent games.

I’m fascinated with Hardball’s approach to this issue, in which Jack Thompson was invited on the show and subsequently grilled for jumping to conclusions. On the one hand, it’s probably good to encourage critical thinking among audiences by showing Chris Matthews questioning the links suggested by the “expert” invited on the show. On the other hand, if video games are never part of the equation, why even give screen time to someone who doesn’t deserve it? In this case, video games had already been brought into the discussion elsewhere, so maybe it did more good than harm to shut down that line of argument publicly.

In the future, however, I’d like to see newsmakers give up the idea of spinning off incidents of youth violence into two-sided stories between the “games cause violence” experts and the “games don’t cause violence” experts. This isn’t a two-sided issue until the news sets up two sides. Newsmakers could pick a dozen or more angles for such stories, but picking an angle that taps into controversial issues isn’t proof that such issues should in fact be controversial.

One thought on “In the Aftermath of a Shooting

  1. Just to follow up, it’s not clear to me why Tim Russert even brings this up, days after it was clear that the shooter didn’t play video games. Was it filmed so far in advance that it seemed like a valid question at the time? Not only does he bring it up, but he makes a direct connection between this and the perceived need for a policy response. Please allow me to link to the Wikipedia entry on agenda-setting just one more time.

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