When violence occurs on a national scale, our first thoughts are mourning the lives lost. Our grief is followed almost immediately by necessary vigilance against the onslaught of heavily racialized media reports and political dialogues. How will instances of violence result in the criminalization of vulnerable communities? How does the race of the perpetrator determine the language that is used regarding the violence?
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, the media seems intent on centering the story around the shooter’s possible motives rather than on the urgency of implementing a legislative response to ensure gun control. Ultimately, the discovery of the shooter’s motivation will not undo the violence or unlock any underlying mystery in the story. We have watched mass shootings play out so many times in this country that it is incredibly disrespectful to let the victims of the shooting die in political silence while we attempt to parse out the shooter’s motives and offer our prayers rather than rally for legitimate reform.
Furthermore, the cultural forces of toxic masculinity, white supremacy, homophobia and Islamophobia that effectively create white male shooters need to be equally addressed in gun control debates. As journalists, we understand the political intent and power of language and how language can be used to hide systemic violence. White shooters are rarely deemed “terrorists” yet white men are behind the majority of mass shootings in U.S. history. Language and controlling images become central to upholding white supremacy. It is white privilege that surrounds white male shooters with terms like “lone wolf” and writes off their violence as an issue of regrettable mental illness, rather than an act of terrorism. In fact, the damage done in Las Vegas was more severe than other shootings that have been classified as terrorist attacks.
There have been very few pictures of the shooter in media coverage, and the media has spent more time focusing on the shooter’s Filipino girlfriend than they have on infamizing the shooter.
In 2014, The New York Times faced intense backlash for their coverage of murdered Black teenager Michael Brown when the newspaper wrote that Brown was “no angel.” The mainstream media used harsher language when characterizing Brown than they have for the shooter. In contrast, our takeaway from the media coverage of the shooter is that he was a shrewd and successful gambler who also enjoyed fishing.
There has also been almost no discussion about what it means for a white man to shoot up a country music festival, which is typically thought of as a white music genre. Is this aspect of the story not being analyzed because it isn’t as easily racialized or politicized? While the mainstream media is typically quick to sensationalize “Black on Black crime,” instances of “white on white crime,” such as the Las Vegas shooting, aren’t read along racial lines.
With white supremacy publicly on the rise, it is crucial that we understand and analyze how white privilege pervades the national dialogue.