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Can the media change American attitudes to guns?

As heavy consumers of American news, Australians have watched in horror at the stream of mass shootings that continue to obliterate US citizens – including many school students. And while words like ‘shocking’, ‘devastating’ and ‘terrifying’ are peppered throughout the USA’s reporting of mass shootings, the grizzly details – images of dead children, or bloodied classrooms for example – are omitted.

In the wake of February’s Florida school shooting, an increasingly loud chorus is asking whether it’s OK for the media to continue portraying mass shootings as ‘bloodless’.

While photos of grieving relatives and candlelit vigils tell part of the story, is self-censorship by the mainstream media doing more harm than good when it comes to changing the status quo for America’s relationship with guns?

Mainstream media: what’s their role?

According to Matthew Ricketson, Professor of Communication, Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, when it comes to revealing the full impact of current gun policies, the media’s role in changing American attitudes simply isn’t clear-cut.

‘In today’s era of digital disruption, only one thing’s certain: in America’s war on mass shootings, the media’s current approach is doing little to bring about effective change,’ he says.

Perhaps in response, everyday US citizens directly affected by mass shootings are now taking the lead on the gun control narrative. Impassioned teens are filling the hole left by mainstream media, using social channels to drive calls for a national shift.

But in an environment where the American President’s solution (to school shootings at least) is to arm teachers, it’s questionable whether their calls for action on gun control will be heeded either.

So should the mainstream media be more explicit? Would publishing more graphic content about mass shootings really help change American attitudes to gun legislation?

'In today’s era of digital disruption, only one thing’s certain: in America’s war on mass shootings, the media’s current approach is doing little to bring about effective change.'

Professor Matthew Ricketson,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Can the lessons of history help today’s America?

The tide of public opinion was turned in the 1970s when images of the Vietnam War were published. Now-famous photographs, such as that of a young girl running after being hit by napalm and a man’s execution on a Saigon street, exposed the public to the realities of the conflict, galvanizing anti-war sentiment and ultimately helping to end the US’s involvement.

But it’s not the 1970s anymore. The media landscape has been turned on its head in the years since the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975. So where to from here?

Facing new mainstream media realities

While many are urging mainstream media to ‘show us the carnage’, such an approach won’t change attitudes, says Prof. Ricketson.

‘Media decisions that were powerful 40+ years ago are unlikely to make a difference to public opinion today. There’s a real limit to the impact mainstream media now has, whether it chooses to publish graphic content around mass shootings or not.’

‘The media universe is larger than it used to be, with digital and social media outlets now more effective at dispersing news than mainstream media,’ he says.

‘If it’s graphic, violent images you want, you can get them online at the click of a mouse. All media coverage, even mainstream, is much more graphic than it was 40 years ago. For mainstream news outlets to publish more graphic images of mass shootings is not a stand-alone solution.’

Why the current news cycle needs disrupting

Prof. Ricketson says mainstream media outlets need to be more active, balanced and ethical in calling out mass shooting realities, showing US citizens the full impact of current gun policies, and in maintaining the pressure after the first headlines hit the newsstand.

‘The current news cycle around mass shootings is very predictable. There’s a clockwork-like process where the event happens and is reported on, then very quickly pop-psychology gets airtime. The prerequisite “thoughts and prayers” are up next, and then the NRA weighs in. In this way, a balanced, honest narrative gets hijacked.’

It’s this news process that needs to be disrupted, argues Prof. Ricketson.

‘The media’s standard recipe for coverage has lost the ability to effectively inform the general public. Other voices, like the NRA, are more effectively mobilising social media and legislative commentary.’

‘The NRA has been very successful in persuading people that their freedom is being attacked and that guns are the solution. In addition, American radio and TV shock jocks are literally making up fake news to get ratings, and ratings are leading mainstream media outlets around by the nose, instead of the other way around.’

The elephant in the corner of the newsroom

Prof. Ricketson says current media news cycles are now such a deep-rooted problem in the search for accurate commentary, that there needs to be a drastic change in newsrooms to disrupt them and achieve real change in US gun culture and acceptance.

‘There’s no immediate or effective solution to the toxicity being spread by social media or the shock jocks. Trolls and fake news are getting interest and gaining traction.’

‘To regain its role at the heart of public opinion, mainstream media needs to pick up their game and disrupt the current news cycle. It’s a tall order, and unfortunately there are no easy solutions.’

If you want to play a role in journalism today, find out how to forge a journalism career in the era of digital disruption and make a difference.

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Prof. Matthew Ricketson
Prof. Matthew Ricketson

Professor of Communication, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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