Media exposure to mass shootings desensitizes the public

As scholars in communication have documented, when people are exposed to inordinate amounts of pictures and words detailing alarming events, the natural tendency is to assume these events are routine, normal — and expected

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A San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy blocks the entrance to a farm following a mass shooting on Jan. 24 in Half Moon Bay, California. Seven people were killed.

A San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy blocks the entrance to a farm following a mass shooting on Jan. 24 in Half Moon Bay, California. Seven people were killed.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

Last weekend, we learned about another tragic mass shooting. This time, at least 11 people thus far have been killed and nine more injured at a dance studio in southern California. And then on Monday, seven people in Half Moon Bay, California, were killed in a mass shooting.

The shocking fact is that this latest mass shooting was the 39th in 2023 — and it’s still January. We must ask: Why is the government not enacting more stringent, yet reasonable, gun laws? Some argue that this is due to the influence of the National Rifle Association. Perhaps. But part of the reason also may be that the public has become desensitized by the constant streaming of stories about violence.

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As scholars in communication have documented, when people are exposed to inordinate amounts of pictures and words detailing alarming events, the natural tendency is to assume these events are routine, normal — and expected.

Hence, it may not be surprising that there is less of the kind of emotional response needed to motivate citizens to pressure their leaders to adopt policies to alleviate the problem. I fear that is what we are witnessing with recent mass gun shootings and the media’s saturated coverage, especially with the repetitive news loops that occur in this day of 24/7 cable television. 

Richard Cherwitz, professor emeritus, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin.

Accepting reality essential to democracy

Elaine Maimon’s articulate letter made the important point that children should start to be taught media literacy early.

Today’s children are growing up in a media environment in which the volume of falsehood in circulation must be at an all-time high, simply because the presently available means to propagate it did not previously exist. I consider myself to be adept at telling fact from fiction, but I grew up in a world in which facts were valued and sought because of their value in a debate. That world is gone. Today, the person whom the facts do not support might simply restate his or her case more loudly and, because of a shortage of media literacy, get results from loud repetition.

There is an important additional point that must be made. What Maimon proposes is, in many places, a race against time. People who push nonsense have no use for a media-savvy populace and can be depended upon to resist its emergence. Try to imagine someone like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis supporting education in media literacy. If Donald Trump were to, again, become president, how likely is it that his secretary of education would have no opinion on the subject of teaching children to better understand the tactics of his or her boss?

Two or three decades ago, the movement that brought Trump to the White House started by running for seats on school boards. They did this because the races were barely noticed by voters and easily won by a well-organized campaign, which made such a race a good start for a political career and a path to influence. Do not think for a moment that they did not acquire an understanding of the political value of controlling education. 

The parents who believe in conspiracy theories like that the last presidential election was stolen are passing their attitudes to their children. The educational system must counter this before the damage is permanent. An understanding of reality is indispensable in a democracy.

Curt Fredrikson, Mokena

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