5 Lessons We Can Learn From the Orlando Media Coverage

A rainbow flag flying in the wind with a cloudy blue sky in the background.

A rainbow flag flying in the wind with a cloudy blue sky in the background.

On Sunday, June 12th, 2016 I was absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook like I do every morning, slowly bringing consciousness to my day.

I’m of the generation that relies on social media for my news, and although I always brace myself for tragedy intermixed with funny cat videos and bulldogs rolling down hills, I wasn’t prepared for this morning’s news.

I don’t even remember which friend posted it, or what the headline was, or what media source it came from. All I know was that I saw the words “mass shooting,” “gay club,” and “Orlando.” Maybe like some of my fellow queer-identified friends, I immediately double clicked my iPhone home button, swept my finger upwards, and put my phone down.

I wasn’t ready.

I rejected calls from my mother-in-law and ignored texts from loved ones because I didn’t find the courage to learn what really happened until Monday. As I processed the fifty lives taken (yes, including the shooter) and allowed myself to cry for an hour at work, I realized why I decided to disconnect.

The reason I employed my best avoidance skills on Sunday was due to my fear. Not fear about being murdered for my queerness – that’s a daily subconscious fear for most of us queer folk. Not because I recognize that queer Latinx and Black queers are more in danger than I ever am as a femme-presenting white queer.

No. My fear was of the media.

When I found out that the shooter identified as Muslim and claimed ties to ISIS right before committing this massacre, I was afraid of the inevitable hate-mongering that the media (and politicians on all sides of the aisle) were going to reintroduce, repeat, reinforce, ad nauseum, into our country’s narrative.

Yes, our country has a script that we use to respond to crisis and violence. It says loudly and clearly to fear the bad guy. I knew instinctively, in the case of Orlando, that words like “terrorist” would be used to describe this brown, Muslim “bad guy.” I could predict that the racialized aspects of the victims’ identities would be erased from the media coverage. We have become accustomed to the erasure of tragedies that befall communities of color, especially when violence is perpetrated against queer Latinx/Black communities.

So, what can we learn from the media’s coverage of the Orlando shooting? How can we prepare for future media failures to give justice to communities in crisis?

I have some suggestions about where to start and what you can do about it. But if you aren’t ready, I’ll be here when you are.

1. Guns Don’t Cause Mass Murders

The left-leaning media will try to tell you that massacres wouldn’t happen if we had stricter gun control laws. Unfortunately, this is a disturbing oversimplification of why mass murders happen.

Without talking about the American cultural messages that everyone in our country receives by being born and/or growing up in the States, we’re ignoring several components of why, for example, a white supremacist like Dylann Roof shot up and killed nine people at a church with a primarily Black congregation in Charleston in 2015.

It’s like this: When an entire population’s existence and authority to be living in your country is a constant national debate – as it is for the Black community and the queer community and the Latinx community, and especially if your identity intersects with two or more of these communities – people have a habit of believing that there is truly something troubling or threatening about living in a community with these populations.

When your nation doesn’t respect your basic human rights, why should any of its citizens?

And thus begins a homophobic, racist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic mindset, which feeds on hatred and violence.

So, to say that if the killer didn’t have an assault rifle, he wouldn’t have massacred these innocent people, is to ignore the potential root of the issue. And the media’s coverage of gun control lobbying instead of the complexity of the causes of violence further hides the underlying “cultural message soup” we’ve all been fed.

What to Do About It

Recommend to your media that they take the focus off of guns and the politicians fighting for gun control and instead focus on systems of oppression that breed hatred and violence.

Call out reporters and news venues when they use oppressive language to describe various populations, because this is also part of perpetuating the erasure of these communities. Lots of media venues offer spaces for audience comments to help you do this.

But by all means, if you also believe in stricter gun laws, then champion that cause – just maybe don’t do it right this second. Ask yourself what the marginalized folks most directly impacted by the tragedy need to feel safe(r).

I can guarantee that the answer is not news stories about the hundreds of people timing themselves to see how long it takes to buy an assault rifle online to prove a point about gun control.

2. Politics Are Brought in to Distract Us From Reality

Mainstream media has a tendency to politicize instances of crisis.

For instance, during coverage of the Orlando shooting, we saw mainstream media lie and say this was Islam’s fault because of the identity of the shooter. Nope. Just no.

Let me make this really simple: Islam is not synonymous with ISIS.

The teachings of Islam focus on peace, tolerance, and love. ISIS is a scary extremist hate group that is causing terror across the Middle East.

Because media outlets propagated the message that Islam, and Muslims in particular, were responsible for causing terror in Orlando, it politicized and militarized the tragedy in a way that distracts from the populations who are personally and deeply affected by it.

This is usually a big clue that you need to question the motives and messages of the media. This type of media trick is a political red herring.

What to Do About It

Ask leaders in your community to continue to honor the lives that were lost instead of politicizing their deaths for their own careers.

Notice when there are political undertones of media messaging, and hold your media accountable – especially your local media.

Document the language used to describe crimes committed by racialized people versus those committed by those who aren’t. Investigate if the media source is in the pockets of politicians – local or otherwise.

In the instance of the Orlando shooting, by focusing on terrorism, rather than the beautiful lives that were lost, the media sent us all a political message about terrorism, and potentially that news venue’s stance on relations in the Middle East. Call them out on that shit.

3. Criminals Are People, Not Monsters

Reporters are often really good at dehumanizing criminals. This helps lead citizens to believe that criminals are sick, mentally ill monsters, or scary terrorists, instead of humans who commit crimes.

Ahh yes, the proverbial boogey man.

When we dehumanize criminals, the media and the consumer don’t have to make the links between times of crisis and all of the other tragedies that happen on our soil every day.

Let’s take Ferguson as our case study: In the coverage about Ferguson, at the beginning, the media was focused on why a white cop would possibly shoot an unarmed, innocent Black man. That couldn’t possibly be right, because the media never gave us the stories about police brutality that plagues racialized communities every day. Therefore, the media turned their attention to what Michael Brown did to deserve being shot by a cop.

The media told us Brown was a thief; Brown was a criminal. Not the cop. By dehumanizing criminals, we perpetuate the idea that all criminals in our country are not human; all violent criminals are just renegades who’ve lost their minds – and thus we continue to unquestioningly buy into systems like the prison industrial complex.

We make up a cultural story about people who commit crimes and therefore deem them unworthy of our humanity.

So, when the cultural narrative dehumanizes a man like Michael Brown – instead of the corrupt, mostly white police force – we continue repeating our cultural script so we don’t make the connections between crime, violence, hyper-masculinity, our police state, our prison industrial complex, and the scapegoating of people who live with mental illness.

In the case of Ferguson, eventually the media did shift its attention to the wider problem of police brutality and the subsequent rallies (which the media called riots, mind you) and development of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it took them awhile to get there. And when they did, the focus was on the disturbances that Black folk were making in the community.

What to Do About It

Start to question (or keep questioning) the links between the language the media uses to talk about “criminals,” no matter their crime. The way the media talks about people who commit crimes matters.

And honestly, I don’t really have a concrete answer about how to hold the media accountable for this one. It’s more about personally acknowledging that there is a cultural narrative and there is a connection between all of this.

4. Sending Thoughts and Prayers Isn’t the Answer

After a major tragedy, including natural disasters right along with mass shootings, media outlets will offer “thoughts and prayers” to the families of those who were killed or injured.

I’m going to be real honest with you right now: I am sick of hearing this. Don’t get me wrong, love and prayers are wonderful. They give lots of us hope when we need it most. But it also gives a lot of people a “free pass” on actually being emotionally vulnerable or “in it” with the communities affected.

Think back to media responses to Katrina. This is an easy way for the media to seem like they are supportive without thinking critically about what they are saying. Once more, we have a community of primarily racialized folk whose lives were forever changed by a crisis. And despite offerings of prayers, over ten years later, these communities are still struggling to put their lives back together.

After the jarring effect of the hurricane subsided, the media lost focus on this Gulf Coast community. Stories about the needs of these folk and ways to help disappeared from public consciousness.

With so many mass shootings and other types of tragedies happening across our nation, offering “thoughts and prayers” has become the autopilot response.

When we look more intentionally at this knee-jerk response in instances like Orlando, it becomes pretty obvious that reporters and media outlets that offer prayers to the victims and their families have the privilege of ignoring the fact that many, many, many, many queer and trans people have been kicked out of, barred from, vehemently rebuked from their religious sanctuaries.

Offering prayers can retraumatize members of LGBTQIA+ community who are grieving in their own ways. I am someone who believes in the power of prayer and the healing power of sending loving energy to people in pain, at the same time, that can’t be all that we do.

What to Do About It

Encourage your media outlets to not stop at offering “thoughts and prayers,” but to diligently inform the public about what they can do to help victims in times of crisis.

Demand that the media outlet will demonstrate how they are going to fight against messages of homophobia, sexism, racism and all the other -isms that plague our news.

Demand that the media you consume is representative of a broad range of populations, especially outside of times of crisis; otherwise, the media has a tendency to lose focus on racialized populations even during difficult times.

5. Focusing on the Murderer Feeds on Fear

During a mass shooting, the media has a tendency to focus on the shooter instead of the victims and their communities.

For instance, within two days, after the Sandy Hook shooting, I was already sick of seeing the killer’s face. I could remember his name, but couldn’t recall any of the names of the children who were killed. The same thing happened to me after Orlando. And Charleston.

The faces of the shooters are forever etched into my brain. Because the media is really good at feeding on our collective fear. The more we become obsessed with trying to figure out “why he did it,” “what makes a killer tick,” and whether or not they struggle with mental health, the more we allow for skyrocketing media ratings and the perpetuation of mixed feelings.

The media doesn’t want us to focus on the help being given to the injured victims whose lungs and hearts are still pulsing. They know full well that covering crisis and keeping their audience in fear will keep us hooked and keep their viewerships and readerships high.

Additionally, because we live in such a fast-paced, news-heavy culture, these tragedies become a blip on the map of information overload. By focusing on the shooters, the families are left feeling forgotten and alone. They’re forced to create their own tributes to their loved ones who’ve been lost – their anguish grazed over by the mass public in order to focus on our own fear.

What to Do About It

Read the names of the victims during a tragedy like in Orlando. Learn their stories. See their faces. Share these posts to your social media. Tweet these stories at your news venues. Every day. Every hour. Until they get the point.

Finally, what can you do generally?

Teach your kids, friends, family members, coworkers, and neighbors to read the media in a way that stops harming others. Hold each other accountable, especially your media and political leaders at the local level.

Research the impacts that inaccurate media portrayals have on marginalized communities.

And never, ever, take a news story at face value.

Lydia Weiss is a queer feminist from Michigan, who is a passionate advocate for gender justice. She has a Masters in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and during the day, works at Michigan State University. Her spare time is spent with her sweetheart and running her new editing business, Ellipsis Editing, LLC.