On a Sunday afternoon, when a church-shooting left more than two-dozen people dead outside San Antonio, Texas, a hometown friend in Montreal called me to express concern about the tragedy. While the media-frenzy had carried reports all the way to Canada within hours, I was blissfully unaware of the shooting which occurred an hour and a half away from where I live. On Monday, an editor reached out to see if I had an opinion on the shooting — which I did. And I set off to organize an array of emotional reactions. But by Wednesday, I was told the heat around the incident was dying down and an essay about gun-violence would be over-shadowed by more current events. It is a horrifying truth: frequent coverage has shortened the attention we give mass-shootings — which could mean we might eventually not give any attention to such tragedies. That desensitization has ominous implications.
Scientists at Loyola University Chicago report that exposure to media violence may numb people to emotional stimuli thereby increasing aggressive thoughts and hostile expectations. At the same time, such exposure could decrease prosocial behavior and sympathy for victims of violence.
My own personal experience has proven this true. I was 15 when my parents sat us down to tell us that our uncle, a father of two and husband, had been shot dead in front of his family. My uncle — a man who loved horror and violent films and would let us kids watch with him, only after we pleaded. In these movies, victims of staged-violence could reappear in other films; the finality of violent deaths was never real to us until my uncle was killed. That afternoon, as reality sunk in, my parents told me to put my head between my knees so I wouldn’t faint — I don’t feel like this when people get shot in movies, I thought.
I couldn’t watch violent movies for years — still can’t, really. I mistakenly watched Pulp Fiction, once. Moviegoers laughed when a scared man’s head was accidentally blown off by a gun.
Research shows that while reports of mass-shootings are more frequent, even if coverage is fleeting, the number of events haven’t increased — they’ve only become deadlier. Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States, says the number of victims affects the likelihood that the shooting will be reported by the media. In other words, the higher the death count, the more frequent the coverage, the more prone we become to desensitization, or apathy — which literally means, “without feeling.”
As reported in Psychology Today, one must experience feelings about something to take meaningful action on it. So the implications of increasing coverage and normalization of these horrors means decreased emotional response, and without emotion to influence our behavior, apathy won’t affect the change we need.
It’s true: if I don’t want to hear what the media says, I don’t have to listen. And I don’t. After tuning in to my favorite radio-station every day since the 2016 election, last month I stopped listening — because I can’t handle the barrage of reporting and the anxiety it provokes in me. But the radio-silence has also provided the space to imagine what meaningful action could look like — without the influence of fear.
I know that head-burying won’t instill change. In fact, I confront the potential of change daily — my 9-5 hours are dedicated to using art and scholarship to prompt conversations that will inspire action. And I do this on a university campus that allows students and faculty to carry concealed hand-guns. Under the weight of these circumstances, there is no room for ignorance. Because the reality is change requires attention to what ruffles us, and the space to process discomfort, so that we can take meaningful action.
On a Sunday afternoon, when a church-shooting left more than two-dozen people dead, an official with the state Department of Public Safety felt compelled to say, “This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs.” And the president of the US called the incident a mental health issue, not “a guns situation” — both statements trying to tamp down the collateral considerations of mass-shootings, and effectively contributing to the desensitization. But in an era of growing fear, ignoring the full-scope of gun-violence won’t protect us.