The recent shootings at an Orlando, Florida gay club have, understandably, caused a lot of emotional responses and these have been ricocheting around the world all weekend and are likely to continue for some time. As students of the mass media we are in a position where we can analyse these responses and flex our critical thinking muscles in an ongoing assessment of how this tragedy is represented.
Thoughts and Prayers
What exactly does this phrase actually mean? Political leaders, influential opinion makers and the regular Joe swamped social media with the now ubiquitous phrase of, ‘thoughts and prayers’, which is the default setting for any public disaster. It is a commonplace phrase and most likely to be used in America, where religious belief is rife. The surface idea behind the phrase is to communicate that one is ‘praying’ for the victims of the disaster. But in America, especially, it says a lot more than that. In the comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s stand-up routine, a clip below to demonstrate, he talks about the saying, ‘thoughts and prayers’ is essentially worthless as it offers neither time, energy or money to help the situation. His argument is that it is actually a selfish phrase to use because it has the appearance of sympathy with none of the effect. It is designed as a ‘get-out clause’ in moments of disaster and allows the person using the phrase to simply use it and move on.
Perhaps prayer works, I don’t know. But I do know that real political movements, real change and real disaster relief takes action, not just thinking about it.
We may never know why 29 year old Omar Mateen walked into a crowded Orlando gay nightclub and murdered 49 people, wounding a further 53. Many news reports were eager to point out that he had, ‘extreme Islamic ideologies’, that he might be linked to ‘Isis/IS’ and of course we have the use of the word, ‘terror’, which has now become synonymous with religious extremism. President Obama himself referred to the disaster as ‘an act of terrorism’. Simply by using that phrase Obama has connoted that this is a religious related attack because of the association the words have with other attacks of the last 15 years. But is it? US officials have stated that there is no direct link with Islamic State but that’s not quite as good a headline.
Other reports suggest that he was angered by the sight of two gay men kissing in downtown Miami. It is hard to accept that the sight of two men embracing each other would drive someone to mass murder but perhaps it did. If this is the case then we need to do more in terms of positive representation of queer people. “But won’t that cause more people to get angry”? I hear you ask. I don’t think so. I think that increased representation of any marginalised group in society helps people see minorities as human and less as the ‘other’. This is where you, as Media students, come in. You are the next generation of media producers, editors and writers. Part of how we, as human beings, see ourselves is going to be your job.
Can Love Trump Hate?
Within minutes of the massacre hitting social media our leaders did the most important thing one can do when faced with a mass shooting. They went on Twitter.
Donald Trump, of course, wasted no time in using the death of 50 people to enhance his political career and even managed to use it as a means to call for Obama’s resignation and as a scaremongering tactic against voting for Hillary Clinton. But he certainly wasn’t alone in using the tragedy for his own means. Every leader was obliged to say something for fear of appearing dispassionate. We live in a society where we are so eager to ‘call someone out’ (see my piece on shaming) that most statements from our political leaders have become absurd in their meaninglessness.
Trump’s narrative is one of fear and crisis. Every opportunity he gets he uses it to remind people that the ‘other’ is after you and are going to kill you and your family. It is interesting to analyse his tweets and statements and see how his campaign is built around a very simplistic narrative of impending doom and how he’s only one that can save us. It might be simplistic but his popularity has revealed it is also incredibly successful. Trump’s campaign has tapped into the American zeitgeist of fear and he has been using it to own advantage. The Orlando attack has led Trump’s supporters to use confirmation bias to enhance and confirm their already pre-existing fear of ‘otherness’.
A massacre of this size will help sell a lot of newspapers and act as immense clickbait for news websites. As uncomfortable as it is hearing that it won’t make it any less true. We have the headlines with with ‘Worst Shooting in US History‘ and you all know the value of a new story like this, it has Negativity, Recency (24 rolling news!), reference to one of the ‘Elite Nations’ (“How could this happen in America?”) and Size. It seems nearly every way this story is being told is focusing on these news values, especially ‘size’. Have a glance at the news websites and count how many refer to the amount of victims and how it is the worst massacre since 9/11.
Today’s The Sun website refers to the perpetrator as the, ‘ISIS Killer’, despite no actual evidence linking Mateen to the terrorist organisation. Whilst sites like The Huffington Post offers news journalism it also offers a lot of opinion pieces (like the one you’re reading) but when you have opinion, news and entertainment side by side it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between them all.
In a fascinating article published this morning in the The Guardian, journalist Owen Jones eloquently discusses how some news organisations have neglected to mention that this was an attack on LGBT people. He had appeared on Sky News the night before and was so affronted by their willingness to turn the ‘other’ into the ‘invisible’ that he actually walked off. In the interview, Jones was trying to tell the interviewer that this was an attack on LGBT people and that it should be called just that, a homophobic attack. But he was shouted down by the interviewer, Mark Longhurst, who said it was more about an attack on ‘human beings’ enjoying themselves. This is a clear example of how the mass media have the power to reshape a narrative which sidelines an already marginalised community.
And so, my dear students, it is down to you yet again. As the future journalists, film and television makers and designers part of how we represent, report and reflect on massacres like the terrible shooting in Orlando will be in part your responsibility. You may choose to continue how it is today, or maybe, just maybe you’ll decide the world deserves a better mass media and represent the terrible things which happen to us with critical thinking, compassion and above all else, truth. Or at least the closest we can get to it.
Perhaps he was an IS agent or a lone assassin or maybe he really was angered by seeing two men kissing. Regardless of his motives, it is clear that he grew up in a culture where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are still seen as ‘other’, as ‘them’. This is why understanding representation theory and applying it to our lives and work is so important.