Another Mass Shooting

Posted by Madhulika Sikka on


The coverage of a mass shooting in America usually follows a fairly predictable script.  It goes something like this:

A swarm of press arrives and wall-to-wall coverage ensues.

Politicians share their thoughts and prayers.

Gun safety advocates call for action. 

Their opponents say it is too soon to have this discussion while a community is in mourning.

Gun rights advocates claim that their opponents are on the way to stripping Americans of any ability to own firearms.

And within a week the country has moved on.

The Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has upended that script and by far the most significant difference has been the activism of the high school students themselves.

These young people have channeled a terrible experience into activism, a move to agitate for some kind of action on gun safety issues. 

Regardless of where one stands on the issue I would have thought that there is room for at least a sense of admiration for young people standing up and articulating their thoughts and ideas in the face of a traumatic experience.

Apparently not. 

These young people have been at the center of conspiracy theories fomented by online trolls and given oxygen by the algorithmic vicissitudes of platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

It’s not only conspiracy theorists who have things to say about these students. Everyone’s a critic, even some of the audience of the PBS NewsHour.

Janet Swanson of Centennial, Colo., writes: “The interview with two Florida students re the Florida shooting was disappointing in the extreme.  After listening to several extremely articulate students on other media outlets for the past two days – this was the best you could do????  Neither of the two students seemed secure in their opinions – to many constant ummms. Disappointing in a news outlet that I usually value.  Also why not point out that Mr. Trump weakened background checks last year???

I’m sorry that students Suzanna Barna and Lewis Mizen did not satisfy Ms. Swanson’s high standards. I’m sorry that these high schoolers did not have a flawless presentation about a traumatic event that they were witnesses to. I’m sorry that they didn’t seem “secure in their opinions” to the satisfaction of this viewer. Perhaps Ms. Swanson can recall being a high schooler called upon to comment on the big issues of the day, even without being a party to an actual event, and doing so under the glare of a national and international audience?

I have been in awe of every student I have seen on the air during this story and I suggest Ms. Swanson lighten up.

You can make your own assessment about these kids yourselves.

As for reporting on Mr. Trump and background checks, the issue was addressed by William Brangham in this report, though granted people may not be tuning in every day.

Viewer Theresa Baird of Portland was “troubled” by an interview with two college students who were supporters of open gun access and even examining the possibility of arming teachers.  She writes, “I’m troubled first that you bring college students to oppose high school students; this create (sic) a power dynamic between young people where a few years of maturity is highly sensitive.  Secondly, that these young people are NRA members.  Not a fair or objective counter interview to the kids who experienced the assault.”

David Saladino of Berea, Ky., writes, “I AM SHOCKED AND OUTRAGED THAT MS. WOODWARD (sic) interviewed two college students who’s (sic) views were contrary to the vast majority of the public’s on mass shooting in schools.  I’m assuming this was an attempt to give equal time to the 'other side' but there is no other side…when you have segments like I witnessed this evening (2/22/18) with those college students who think teachers should be armed and they are right because they grew up with guns in their family households, etc. The male student from Liberty even went so far as to argue that you can’t take away someone’s right to an assault rifle because he had no criminal record.  And that such a person can just get the armament on the black market by some back door means, if denied a legal avenue. That’s outrageous!”

Saladino and Baird were referring to this Judy Woodruff interview with college students Maddison Westcott (a new NRA member) and Ian Parish.

I’ve reviewed the first 13 days of coverage of the Parkland shooting on NewsHour and I commend them for bringing on a range of views from young people. I don’t think that the interviews with Westcott and Parish negated the interviews with Marjory Stoneman Douglas students at all. I’ve been encouraged to see so many interviews across all networks, with young people as opposed to just talking to the adults who are making policy.  And in a refreshing change, NewsHour, as of this writing, has not focused on pitting lawmaker against lawmaker - that's a scene we've seen repeatedly across other networks with everyone following their pre-ordained scripts. 

I'm hoping that a focus on the voices of a different demographic may get lawmakers to pay attention in a different way. 

It is because of the conviction of so many young people that the story of this particular shooting has deviated from the normal script of coverage of mass shootings and that’s a good thing.

Mr. Saladino may have been outraged by Ian Parish’s comments on mental health and background checks but Parish is right. Mr. Saladino may disagree, but currently you can’t stop an 18 year old from buying these weapons if he doesn’t have a criminal record, and we’ve seen evidence that anyone of any age can buy a firearm at a gun show without any checks at all.  You can take a look at this story from 2014 reported by Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel as one example. 

While, as Mr. Saladino points out, a majority of Americans favor some form of gun safety measures be introduced (like universal background checks and a nationwide ban of assault weapons) the fact of the matter is that there has been no legislative movement on these issues. 

As long as that impasse continues we are going to continue to hear some opinions that we may not like but are a necessary part of the discourse.


As public editor, Madhulika Sikka serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. She reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
Have a comment related to the journalistic integrity of PBS content? Send an E-mail to Madhulika or contact her at 703-739-5290. You can also follow the public editor on Twitter @PBSPubEd.
The public editor does not replace viewers' long-standing ability to contact stations, producers and PBS.
If you have a comment related to PBS website design or user experience, please contact the Audience Services team.

E-mail Update

Sign up to receive an email notification when new columns are published.

Your E-mail address:

Unsubscribe from email update.