This post by request from Mike, my lovely boyfriend, and also a response to this prompt.]
In my perfect world, no one would cover terrorist attacks. Oh, sure, the local news would tell people what had happened and what they need to do to stay safe (stay inside, be on the lookout for people that look like the suspect) and help others (house displaced runners). But national news? No. 24-hour news coverage to the point that you can’t get away from it and have to take a social-media break until it’s over? Fuck no.
The average person cannot do anything about public violence. Donating blood doesn’t help, because the blood needs to have already been donated to go to patients; blood banks will simply have an oversupply the week after the disaster and possibly an undersupply once the blood expires and the people who donated blood once haven’t been cleared to donate yet. Other than that, our options are mostly just being sad and scared, and spreading news so that more people can be sad and scared.
Overcoverage of public violence leads to dumb policy. Because of the availability heuristic, it’s easier for people to remember shootings and terrorist attacks than less-covered things like heart attacks or infectious diseases. That means we think that shootings and terrorist attacks lead to more deaths than they really do. We spend billions of dollars on law enforcement and security theater to prevent shootings and terrorist attacks, instead of relieving poverty or scientific research or literally anything else. (The TSA alone costs eight billion dollars a year, or approximately ten thousand grants to study snail sex.) We start calling for gun control or more mental health treatment or national registries of mentally ill people or an end to immigration or a war in Afghanistan, not because these policies are supported by evidence and in our best interests, but because they might have prevented this one flukey thing that we think is more common than it is because people keep covering it.
It also leads to discrimination. Any act of public violence is inevitably blamed on people of color, Muslims, mentally ill people, or some combination, and then people of color, Muslims, and mentally ill people have to put up with people being assholes against them because they assume that we are going to commit violence. (I feel bad for mentally ill Muslims of color. They just have the deck stacked against them.)
I think my biggest grudge against news coverage of public violence, though, is that it makes people afraid. Perhaps because I have an anxiety disorder, I am pissed off at people being made afraid of something that they shouldn’t have to be afraid of.
Let me be clear: I am not policing your response to public violence. I was scared too. It is perfectly natural to be scared when people are covering some shocking act of public violence 24/7; that’s just how brains work. It’s as if the news decided to have 24/7 coverage every time an orphaned puppy got brain cancer. It is perfectly normal to be sad when orphaned puppies have brain cancer; it is also perfectly fair to be upset that the news is making a bunch of people sad for no reason.
I know why people cover this kind of violence. It’s because it’s interesting, it makes people feel things, and it drives clicks. But I look forward for the day when the media says, “giving this attack attention is exactly what the attacker wanted” and turns away.