Media Discourses: The Cultural Forum of School Shootings
Michael Rennett / UT Austin

Convening Question:

Following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this year, Donald Trump claimed that violent video games, movies, and the perpetrator’s mental health were to blame for the massacre. Even though scholars and researchers have debunked the hypodermic model of media effects that sutures violent entertainment and violent youth (see Jenkins), the perpetuation of these causal connections stalls any progress to prevent future school shootings. Trump’s statement about gun violence mimicked those surrounding the causes behind the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, precariously leaving the public debate in the same place that it was nearly two decades ago.

This roundtable endeavors to discuss the media’s role in framing the narratives behind the causes of school shootings, and how those narratives may affect public debates and political legislation about this issue (see Birkland and Lawrence). In their theorization of television as a “cultural forum,” Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch suggest that television programs can highlight and comment on ideological issues. How does the media frame the issues surrounding mass shootings? Is there a distinction between the topics that fictional representations and news coverage of mass shootings represent? For instance, do fictional representations concentrate on mental health issues rather than explicitly arguing for gun control legislation? How has the cultural forum changed with new media technology? The breadth of the internet has led to the dissemination of far-right conspiracy theories surrounding “crisis actors” to mainstream media outlets. For instance, a conspiracy theory video concerning David Hogg – a survivor of the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – was the top trending YouTube video on February 21, 2018 before its removal and Hogg denied these false accusations during a CNN interview. How has user-driven content like these videos shaped (or been shaped by) the current public sphere surrounding school shootings? Finally, how has the increase of niche partisan television networks and online communities affected the cultural forum? Is media increasingly becoming an “echo chamber” (see DiFonzo), thereby preventing any meaningful progress in this debate?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Jacqueline Ryan Vickery, University of North Texas
Ivy Ashe, University of Texas at Austin
*Michael Rennett, University of Texas at Austin
Julia G. Raz, Santa Monica College
Phil Scepanski, Marist College

*denotes panel convener

Reflections

In “Media Discourses: The Cultural Forum of School Shootings,” my fellow roundtable panelists and I were concerned with the conversations which emerge after school shootings. The dialogue which follows tragic events like Columbine, Newtown, or Parkland tends to follow the same script with politicians and political commentators often placing blame on violent video games, movies, and the perpetrator’s mental health. As the convener of this roundtable, my frustration with this all-too-common script became the inspiration behind its main question: Have we as a society really learned nothing since Columbine? Will we just repeat the same discussion as more and more children get senselessly murdered in their classrooms?

On this roundtable, the other panelists and I discussed the ways in which the media frames school shootings to investigate and interrogate the common public and political discourse. Thanks to the conference coordinators, our roundtable featured various unique perspectives on this topic. I opened our conversation by discussing how school shootings are portrayed on American fictional television programs. Using Newcomb and Hirsch’s theory of television as a cultural forum, I argue that fictional portrayals help formulate our discussions of this topic. I find that bullying and mental health are the two most common issues and it is no surprise that they shape our conversations about school shootings. Ivy Ashe considered news coverage of school shootings, particularly how school shooting survivors from Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas used social media to tell their own stories and control their respective narratives. Ashe argues that hashtags like #NeverAgain and #IfIDieInASchoolShooting allow survivors to break the traditional 24-hour news cycle. Ashe optimistically considers how this change provides a much-needed jolt to the conventional news script, and hopes that traditional media will consider survivors’ voices in the digital age. Next, Jacqueline Vickery expanded our discussion from school shootings to general gun violence. Vickery mentions how school shootings centralize the ongoing debates about gun violence due to their media coverage, but people are often reticent to politicize these tragedies. Instead, she argues that the debate over gun violence and gun control should be continued through ongoing news coverage of homicides, suicides, and police shootings. Like Ashe, Vickery wants us to examine the youth-led movements on digital media platforms as a way to continue discussions about gun violence outside of the traditional media. Meanwhile, Phil Scepanski focused on the connections between media rituals and mediated trauma. Scepanski notes how the unfortunate regularity of school shootings leads to repeated national rituals like the 24-hour media “script” which Ashe and Vickery mention. Moreover, Scepanski observes how much of the rhetoric in this ritual is constructed around nation-building, specifically coming together as a country to support those directly affected by the tragedy. Finally, Julia Raz provided a personal perspective to the roundtable by discussing the on-campus aftermath of the active shooter at Santa Monica College where she works. Because she has students who survived the shooting, she focuses on the pedagogical implications of this difficult subject. Raz advocates for a flipped classroom approach to discuss gun violence and gun control, but understands the reluctance and fear when educators may have to broach the topic.

Due to our unique viewpoints, we had a productive conversation about both real and fictional school shootings. We discussed the repeated scripts of news coverage and how fictional television programs tend to mimic those conversations in their narratives. We also focused on how we would like to see those scripts evolve in the future, with greater emphasis being placed on gun control and toxic masculinity. By analyzing the current media discourses of school shootings, we hope to further these discussions, deepen our understanding of the issue, and—ideally—see school shootings and all forms of gun violence come to an end.

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