It’s understandable that a lot of people, including journalists, have been shaken up by the killings at Virginia Tech last week, but you still have to wonder at the short-sightedness and historical illiteracy—you might even say “current-events illiteracy”—of the (quite a few) journalists who have called it the “worst mass murder in US history.”
The Savannah Morning News is pushing the “worst mass murder” line: “Little is known about the shooter who killed 31 people and apparently wounded another 29 in the worst mass murder in U.S. history.”
The San Jose Mercury News is selling the same story: “When I awoke the next morning, the name of the perpetrator of the nation’s worst mass murder was all over the news, and I had another reaction: Oh, no. He’s Asian.”
The Bradenton Herald: “…the father, also named Juan Ramon Ortiz, learned hours later that his son was one of the 32 people gunned down in the worst mass murder in US history.”
Canada Free Press: “Seemingly within minutes of Cho Seung-Hui killing himself and bringing the worst mass murder in U.S. history to an end, Virginia Tech president Charles Steger and Police Chief Wendell Flinchum came under a barrage of criticism for not locking down the campus after the first double murder two hours before the main shooting spree began.”
The Trentonian: “Andrew Williams of West Windsor walked out of the building at Virginia Tech minutes before the killer showed up and started shooting, committing the worst mass murder in U.S. history.”
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog is closer to the mark, but not by much: “Virginia Tech’s students are in horrific shock after the second-worst mass murder in American history. No doubt CNN has a wide range of highly respected authorities to call upon, people could lend some perspective, wisdom and the appropriate solemnity to the day’s news.”
Are we forgetting something?. Okay, then second worst, they might say. Nope. Third? Wrong again. And it’s not even the fifth.
This isn’t to denigrate the horror or tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings, but to point out what we might call the willful, if not culpable, ignorance of too many journalists who jazz up their reporting with sensationalism and activism to push an agenda or just grab readership.
Journalism is supposed to be about reporting and even some very mild analysis, unless of course you say right up front that you have a particular viewpoint you’re coming from. But none of the “worst in history” stories ever did that. Why? We can surmise that it helps an anti-gun agenda or some liberal cause, but we don’t know that for sure. It could just be laziness, ignorance, and an attempt to sell more newspapers.
Whatever it is, it’s bad journalism.
Update: Bill Cork notes a few more terrible gun-related massacres that weren’t in my list, like the “Massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado, where Methodist minister Col. Chivington massacred between 200 and 400 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of them women, children, and elderly men” and other attacks on Indians in the 19th century.
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