Colorado shooting: How Americans deal with media-driven events
For better and for worse, society today is driven by sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately. The latest example: the Colorado shooting rampage.
As everyone from politicians to parents ofÂ slain children search for answers in the Colorado shooting, many observers say the high-profile event is just the latest example of both the progress andÂ problems inÂ dealing with violent, media-drivenÂ events.
WeÂ live in a society driven by increasingly sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everythingÂ virtually immediately, saysÂ UCLA assistant professor and psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim, adding, â€śand this has a good and a bad side.â€ť
Cell phone video clips from the Aurora movie theater provided a nearly instantaneousÂ real-time window into events as they unfolded. Television coverage hasÂ blanketed everything fromÂ Mondayâ€™sÂ court appearance by shooting suspect James Holmes to the personal stories of the victims and survivors.
The positive side of such immediate, up-close contact, he says, â€śis that we collectively can respondÂ as a society, we can send money and relief and bring people in to help because we can relate right away.â€ťÂ
The downside, he says, â€śis thatÂ we are seeing it allÂ through the lens it is being presented to us in.â€ť This means we are being drawn through the event according to the biases and prejudices of the technology and theÂ people behind it.
â€śBy and large,â€ťÂ he points out, â€śthese media are driven by ratings and the need to attract the largest audience,â€ťÂ not educate or uplift them.
We have shifted from a cool medium that provides some distance to the â€śhottest possible,â€ť says Bernard Luskin, president-elect of the media psychology division of the AmericanÂ Psychological AssociationÂ in Washington. â€śThis means we are right in the midst of events now,â€ť he says.
But as technology progresses, he says he sees little progress in the ability to respond and handle the deeper implications of violence.Â
â€śThe information is geared towards the needs of the people delivering the information rather than the deep, emotional needs for empathy and sympathy that the victims of real violence require,â€ť he says.
At the same time, there has been marginal progress in certain areas, points out Dr. Karim.
In the case of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was found to have ignored warnings about child sexual abuse, he says, â€śwe are very uncomfortable with the details of those victims' lives. Itâ€™s one of the lastÂ taboos with a significant stigmaÂ attachedÂ to it, and we donâ€™t want to know the details of its impact or what actually happened.â€ťÂ
As a result, he points out how much the coverage was geared toward the penalties imposed on the university and the impact they will have on the school and its football team. Innocent bystanders, such as Penn State students, in the scandal may suffer, he notes, â€śbut they are not the real victims in that case.â€ť
ButÂ the sort ofÂ psychological insight that can be provided in a swiftly moving media environment is limited,Â says Mindy Utay, a former lawyer who is now a psychotherapist and blogger for the Huffington Post.
â€śUnfortunately,â€ť she says via e-mail, â€śpop-psychology has given most Americans a superficial and often inaccurate idea of human emotions and motivations.â€ť
She says Americans in general are much more sympathetic to the idea of mental illness than they were even a decade ago â€“ especially now that mood disorders such as depression, postpartum depression and bipolar disorder are "out of the closet" â€“ but they tend to view violence in simplistic terms.Â
â€śThe shooter was bullied [Columbine] or the shooter flunked out of his Ph.D. program and felt like a loser [Aurora].Â There's a lot of pop-psychology input that shapes how Americans view violence â€“ and much of it is misguided,â€ť she adds.Â Â
Greater understanding does not meanÂ all victims are equal, points out San Diego psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, who specializesÂ in borderline personality disorders. Even in the cases where the genuine suffering of victims is highlighted, mainstream mediaÂ focus on what will drive ratings.Â
â€śThe more mundane suffering of genuine victims ofÂ everyday violence will not get the same kind of coverage that the homeless man whose face was cannibalized in Florida did,â€ť he notes. Proliferating media also give individuals the opportunity toÂ find their own level of response, he points out, which can be both good and bad.
You can locate like-minded people to help in a terrible situation, he says, â€śor you can find a group of people toÂ support your worst emotions and go deep into the dark side.â€ť