Thoughts on Post-Newtown Journo Policy Chatter

Typical of the aftermath of any major event, the media has inspired more than a few talking points in the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Newtown.

One thread concerns how journalists immediately engaged in policy discussion before all the facts were known.

A Canadian friend of mine reached out to me about this via Facebook (I went to McGill from 2004-2008 – as an aside, I can recall only two Canadian mass shootings in that time frame resulting in seven fatalities, including the two gunmen). He asked if it was appropriate to turn the narrative into a referendum on gun laws, when we didn’t know all the facts – including the identity and location of the shooter.

It was a fair question. And after consideration, I told him that I believe it was – that it is even the duty of a journalist (not reporters) to make policy pronouncements, even with imperfect information.

Here’s what we had already known by the early afternoon yesterday that warranted calls for some sort of action: a man shot dead over twenty people with a multitude of firearms. The majority of the deceased were children. That we have seen these shootings happen time and time again without any resulting change; that we couldn’t protect these kids – still in diapers when Obama was first elected – represents a colossal systemic failure, this outpouring of grief stricken calls for change represented the most seeming thing that the majority of journalists could do yesterday.

We may not have had all the details about how Adam Lanza acquired the guns, his mental state, or anything else that would have proved useful in any sort of serious inquiry or in actually writing legislation. But the fact is this: the United States plays host to the most gun violence in the OECD, and that warrants opening discussions on both gun laws and the state of mental health in the United States. And what better time to broach the issues when the country is starting to look for answers?

Too often, people treat journalists as if they’re meant to be stenographers – they are supposed to be in many cases, but in the larger picture, they must seek to hold society accountable for its failings. A journalist should seek to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted, as the old cliché goes. Regrettably, this hackneyed phrase merits repeating in a time when tabloid horse-race journalism often “wins the morning.”

This sort of pontificating happens after every tragedy, and so it should . Unless, of course, you believe that pure objectivity in journalism actually exists, in which case I have some unicorn insurance to sell you. Whether or not it is done tastefully or reasonably is another matter. Queen of Tact Ann Coulter, for example, suggested that concealed carry would have stopped Lanza – as if dozens of children murdered execution style could have fended off a maniac wearing kevlar after their teacher was killed in a surprise attack. And I won’t deign touch the “prayer in our schools” suggestions offered by the likes of Mike Huckabee.

Nonetheless, I don’t hold it against Coulter or Huckabee for offering their two cents on the matter. This is part and parcel of the industry. And it will continue to be – as it should – after any catastrophic event, as people search for answers, and competing ideas seek to shape the “reconstruction” narrative.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.