The Media Should Stop Encouraging Mass-Shooting Phobias

People gather for a vigil to remember victims of the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, N.Y., August 5, 2019. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
It is irrational to live in fear of such a rare event.

Suppose an otherwise bright and promising young person told you she was terrified of food. She was having difficulty sleeping at night. Every meal time was a source of anguish. She couldn’t stop thinking about choking to death on food. Fear of choking to death was interfering with her relationships, making it difficult for her to do her job, warping her life.

You would advise such a person to seek counseling, or counsel her yourself. You would tell her to look at the numbers. You would point out that it’s highly unlikely she will die of choking on food. What you would not do is encourage her to be afraid of food, publicize her views, put her on talk shows and magazine covers, or make her a national spokesperson on the dangers of choking on food.

And yet that is exactly what the media, from the New York Times on down, do when it comes to mass shootings. You are three times as likely to die of choking on food as in a mass shooting. (According to one commonly cited chart) You are far more likely to die in a pedestrian accident, in a motor-vehicle accident, or in an assault with a sharp object. You are far more likely to die of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Definitions of mass shootings vary, but in a worse-than-average year, some 50 people in the U.S. die in one, according to a study recently publicized by Joe Biden. That’s one in 6 million. These are lottery-ticket odds.

This week in its “The Edit” newsletter, the Times sent out a mass email with this dire headline: “Terrified by Mass Shootings? Me Too.” “I wake up in a cold sweat from the same nightmare,” writes Times contributor Amanda Gorman. “I’m at school. The pop-pop of bullets rings out. Just as panic shocks my brain, I open my eyes, limbs tangled in bed sheets. The repetitiveness of my nightmare is but a small effect of gun violence in the United States. The devastatingly high frequency of mass shootings has a particular resonance for those of us who have grown up in a climate of lockdown drills.” She believes that “all is shadows and fear.” It apparently takes her a great deal of determination to summon the courage and hope to get through life.

I feel sympathy for the plight of Ms. Gorman but let’s call this what it is: a phobia. A neurosis. An unfounded panic. If I were a Times editor and she told me she was having nightmares about mass shootings I would gently try to steer her away from such thoughts rather than reward and encourage her by publishing them. I would point out to her that, as a senior at Harvard and the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, she should be cheerful, not panicky, about the future. I would suggest she seek therapy to manage her panic attacks.

Gorman is somewhat of a special case in that she grew up in Santa Monica, a few blocks from where a gunman went on a 2013 rampage that left him and four of his victims dead. But then again, I once stood a few blocks from two skyscrapers that collapsed and left nearly 3,000 people dead. If I told you I was deathly afraid of skyscraper collapse, you would gently advise me that the odds of such an event recurring are very slight. In the years after 9/11, the Washington Post helpfully advised us that we are more likely to be killed by our furniture than by terrorists. After all the assiduous downplaying of terrorism fears, why are the media up-playing mass-shooting fears?

The latest Times essay follows many other evidence-free and fundamentally irrational news stories suggesting, based entirely on anecdotes and feelings, that it is perfectly reasonable to worry about being killed in a mass shooting. These stories often simply fail to mention the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any individual will be killed in a mass shooting. I refer to such stories as “New Reality for High School Students: Calculating the Risk of Getting Shot” (New York Times, May 20, 2018), “Resources for Talking and Teaching About the School Shootings in Florida” (February 15, 2018), “In Texas School Shooting, 10 Dead, 10 Hurt and Many Unsurprised” (May 18, 2018), “I Think About It Daily: Life in a Time of Mass Shootings” (December 3, 2015), “Mass Shootings Add Anxiety to Movie-Theater Visits” (December 15,2015), and “Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Tweet on Mass Shooting Deaths Strikes a Nerve” (the physicist had pointed out that it is extremely unlikely you will die in a mass shooting, which the Times criticized as an “ill-timed attempt to add context,” August 5, 2019)

I habitually tune out during gun-related public debate because I don’t care about guns. Whether this or that regulation goes into effect is of little concern to me. Banning “assault weapons,” whatever those are, wouldn’t infringe my liberty since I don’t want one in the first place. But no one ever bothers to provide any evidence whatsoever that their pet proposals would reduce gun violence. Do they really think mass shooters who couldn’t obtain assault weapons wouldn’t simply switch to other rifles, or pistols? As Kevin Williamson once put it, the media’s stance is, “Every time something bad happens, you have to give us something we want.” Effectiveness doesn’t enter into the equation.

That the Times and other outlets foreground and promote this one irrational fear while downplaying or ignoring all others springs from a fairly obvious motive: They think it’s good for the fortunes of the Democratic party to sow panic and unease. They rate partisan political objectives higher than they rate the psychological well-being of college students whose panic episodes are fueled by the obsessive and relentless media focus on mass shootings in the first place, then encouraged and cosseted by follow-up media coverage focused on phobias.

When editors in the media hear from the Amanda Gormans of the world, their hearts leap. They don’t think: Let’s help calm her nerves. They think: Let’s exploit her unease because it serves our purposes. The psychological woe of such people is just collateral damage for the larger political imperative. Omelets, eggs.


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