When disaster strikes, journalists have to write something about it—and write it fast. That means they have to take mental shortcuts, calling up established narratives and laying them out like old wrapping paper for new and more ambiguous facts. (Wife poisons husband. Revenge killing? Money killing? Self-defense killing? We stand at the ready with a lot of templates.) While the resulting gift isn’t always pretty, it’s generally good enough for deadline work.
But sometimes the shortcuts produce a journalistic stampede at the worst possible time. That’s what happened last weekend, when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot six people to death at an Arizona Safeway and gravely wounded many more, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The dominant storyline in the press—one that persisted in the face of all the facts—was that right-wing hysteria and lunacy had given rise to Loughner’s atrocity. Only on Wednesday night, when President Obama delivered a speech that effectively told everyone to cut it out, was the stampede halted (one hopes). But it’s still worth reviewing how the nation’s leading periodicals descended into such mindlessness.
Let’s go back to this Saturday. When news of the incident first broke, bloggers began to speculate that this was a Tea Party-related incident. No evidence of that emerged. Once a little more information trickled out, The New York Times and other outlets linked Loughner to a far-right publication called American Renaissance. That likewise had no basis in fact. Over the next day or two, as Loughner turned out to give off numerous indications of mental illness but very few of right-wing ideology, the dominant analysis became, “Okay maybe this guy was nuts, but, still, he was at least indirectly a product of a climate of political hysteria.”
By Monday, The New York Times’ editorial page had kicked into action. It conceded that, sure, Loughner operated “well beyond usual ideological categories,” but, still, it was “legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge.” The Los Angeles Times followed suit. It admitted that, sure, Loughner and “his own demons were primarily to blame,” but it still condemned the “increasingly incendiary and violent rhetoric that characterizes today's political debate,” for which “the right bears the brunt of responsibility.” Meanwhile, dozens of opinion writers were busily adding related but equally ethereal musings to the heap. Writing in the Guardian, blogger Jessica Valenti blamed a “country that sees masculinity—especially violent masculinity—as the ideal.”
There is of course one advantage to all such lines of argument, if argument is the word for it. They are entirely faith-based, which makes them pretty much irrefutable. But faith-based punditry works in more than one direction. Seven years after the massacre at Columbine High School—in which two senior students shot and killed twelve students and a teacher—CBS News invited Brian Rohrbough, who had lost his son Dan, to explain why he thought the shootings had happened. “The public school system has taught in a moral vacuum, expelling God from the school and from the government, replacing him with evolution, where the strong kill the weak, without moral consequences and life has no inherent value,” Rohrbough said. “And I assure you the murder of innocent children is always wrong, including by abortion. Abortion has diminished the value of children.” Most liberals (myself included) would disagree with Rohrbough’s explanation for the shooting, but they’d have trouble explaining why it’s any less plausible or substantive than explanations blaming Jared Loughner on rightwing hysteria.
So why did the press go so far astray this week? How did many fine, otherwise fair-minded journalists allow their judgment to become so clouded? Let’s venture briefly—and hopefully not too speculatively, lest I be accused of double standards—into the realm of cognition. Organizational theorists such as Karl E. Weick, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan Business School, have researched how we react to unexpected events. In his 1995 book Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick notes that we humans automatically categorize what we encounter, ushering messy new complexities into tidier established categories (“myths, metaphors, platitudes, fables, epics and paradigms,” to be precise). When something bad and inexplicable takes us by surprise, our brains reach for the handiest existing narratives, and accuracy falls by the wayside in favor of simple plausibility. “The stories are templates,” writes Weick. “They are products of previous efforts at sensemaking. They explain. And they energize.”
Contributing to such tendencies are the habits of newsrooms. In their 1989 book How Do Journalists Think?, S. Holly Stocking and Paget H. Gross note that a typical reporter launches into a story with an investigative hypothesis, one that is often bolstered during the reporting process by “confirmation bias.” Only with great reluctance—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—is such a hypothesis normally discarded. Added to that is the weakness that competing hypotheses are tested one at a time, so that alternative explanations for the same data points are almost never considered simultaneously. “For example,” write the authors, “if one is testing a theory about the negative impact of feminism on women’s lives, one is unlikely also to test theories about its positive impact.”
At this point, however, a reader might reasonably ask why, in this case, launching into a discussion of political hysteria was such a bad thing. If the shootings in Arizona can serve as a springboard for discussing a significant, if not necessarily related, societal menace, why not let them do so? After all, much of the right truly has become unhinged.
Well, yes, but let’s remember that the deaths caused by Jared Loughner were preventable. There were concrete things that could have been done and that we now should do. Some people think we should place more restrictions on gun ownership. Some think we should provide more security services to members of Congress. Some think we should have improved mental-health resources. Such solutions may be wise or foolish, but the point is that they are directly relevant to the tragedy of last weekend.
By focusing on explanations that are abstract and speculative and only indirectly related, however, we risk losing sight of the crucial and immediate questions at hand. For instance, when Congressman James Clyburn was interviewed by NPR about the shootings, Clyburn followed the lead of all the major news outlets and focused almost entirely on “the discourse around the political arena,” suggesting a reexamination of the Fairness Doctrine. In short, Clyburn largely ignored a real problem while pledging to focus on an imagined one. That is the danger here.
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York killed 146 garment workers, most of them women and immigrants. Fortunately, the outrage that followed it went in a healthy direction, resulting in new federal workplace safety laws. This was a lot more helpful than essays blaming the fire on misguided ideals of femininity. There’s a place for speculation and supposition, of course. But not a big place, and not for long. It’s well past time for journalists to move on from what we don’t know about the causes of last weekend’s tragedy and grapple seriously with a great deal that we now do know—even if, God forbid, it means we’ll have to abandon our hypotheses.
T.A. Frank is a writer in Los Angeles and an editor at the Washington Monthly.