Last week, shots rang out in a Louisiana movie theater. In the hours that followed, while law enforcement officers attempted to gain control of the situation and begin to investigate, opportunists pounced.
While locals and their friends and family took to social media to offer updates and check the status of others, the agenda driven on both sides of the aisle began to craft their narratives. Scattered amongst prayers for those involved, Twitter was littered with demands for stricter gun control, and criticisms of gun-free zones.
Buzzfeed news editor Rachel Zarrell immediately called for gun control, saying, “Don’t pray. Push for gun control.”
Former Congressman Allen West noted that more people were killed Thursday in Baltimore, and questioned the soft bigotry that makes two dead white people in a movie theater a national headline while the blacks who were shot in Baltimore hardly even rate local coverage.
[sharequote align="center"]With no repercussions for error it's more profitable to be first than to be correct.[/sharequote]
Many conservatives fought back against demands for more gun control laws by pointing out the fact that most mass shootings happen where gun control is the tightest (gun-free zones) and are usually perpetrated by criminals who have no more interest in following the laws that would prevent them from obtaining weapons than they are in following the laws that would prevent them from discharging said weapons into a crowd of people.
But the main complaint from most on social media was the speed with which yet another tragedy was pimped out for political gain. Police were still notifying next of kin, for example, when members of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Moms Demand”/Everytown anti-gun lobbyist group reached out to Amy Schumer (whose movie “Trainwreck” had been interrupted by the shooting) in an attempt to get her to speak publicly in support of their agenda.
No one waited to see if the shooter was mentally unstable. No one waited to see if he had obtained his weapon legally or illegally. No one waited for official statements from the police before jumping to their own pre-selected conclusions and attempting to drag the rest of social media behind them.
Indeed, the speed with which most tragedies are pimped out is frightening, especially since the preferred method of delivery seems to be “shoot first, apologize later.”
Image source: YouTube
In a world where every citizen is a journalist and the news cycle is live 24 hours a day, a lot of damage can be done by people who are not held responsible for being wrong. When there are no repercussions for error – or even for intentionally misleading the public – it becomes far more profitable to be first than to be correct. And if it turns out that the chosen narrative is inaccurate, there are those who aren’t above selectively editing or even ignoring evidence altogether to make sure the narrative holds.
For example, nearly a year ago, Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The narrative that was pushed, specifically - “Hands up, don’t shoot” - painted a picture of a young, misunderstood boy who was targeted by a racist, power-tripping cop for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It doesn’t matter that every bit of evidence that came out during the investigation (which eventually led to the prosecutor’s decision that there was not enough evidence to even indict Officer Wilson) pointed to a very different picture of Michael Brown and a very different picture of the events that took place on August 19, 2014. Because the first image everyone saw was Michael Brown’s stepfather wearing that sign that read, “Ferguson cops just executed my unarmed son,” the damage is still being done in St. Louis in the name of that narrative.
If one looks back further to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the story is similar: An unarmed black kid was shot by a “white” Hispanic neighborhood watchman who targeted him because he “looked scary.”
Even though it was clear in his mug shots that George Zimmerman had been beaten up, the narrative was so pervasive that he was indicted and taken to trial. NBC even went so far as to edit the 911 call, making Zimmerman appear to have been a racist who was simply waiting for the opportunity to strike.
So what can be done about this? We know that tragedies are not going to stop happening. If we have a gun problem, it clearly isn’t being resolved with stricter gun control laws. And if we have a heart problem, failing to present or view evidence objectively will only serve to make that problem far worse.
The answer is to do what some on social media did Thursday evening – particularly in reponse to Buzzfeed Editor Rachel Zarrell – challenge those reporting the news to hold out for accuracy. Remind them that being first sometimes means that you have the first wrong answer. Challenge the public to value truth over agenda. It may not ever be possible, but isn’t it worth trying?
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