Slaughter as media ritual

I am utterly incompetent to comment on, much less offer pseudo-diagnosis of, the latest U.S. school shooting. I cannot watch the television reportage. My eyes dart past the web and newspaper stories/commentary like a man sprinting to avoid being hit by a bus. I’m not confident I even know the correct name of the town where the killings occurred.

Frankly, the unavoidable hits of coverage I have taken make me want to scream. Or throw up. Or both simultaneously. Children are dead. Dead children are news fodder. Pre-Christmas news fodder. Cue the helium-filled TV reporter standing at the scene.

Yes, yes. It’s the news. And the news simply must be told, musn’t it? And that excuses the whole sordid stylized spectacle, doesn’t it? No doubt vultures, too, flap their wings in identifiable patterns before they settle in to eat.

Last night, I was passing the TV room in our house when I overheard Canada’s own helium-filled news guy, Peter Mansbridge, actually say this: “The people of (insert name of latest town distraught over its dead children here) are asking for their privacy. More on that in a moment.”

More on that in a moment? Not: they’re asking for their privacy and we’re going to respect their privacy given what they’ve suffered. No. Rather: Oh, those poor schlubs whose lives have just been shattered by the deaths of their children don’t want creepy-peepies peering at them everywhere they go? We’ll show them. More on that in a moment. Flap, flap, Mr. Mansbridge. Flap, flap.

What comes close to being a cause for despair—but only close, because we must never, ever, ever give into despair—is not just the thoughtlessness of such behaviour but its cultural embeddedness. I don’t know—have no way of knowing—if particular media imaging played any kind of causal role in this specific case. But I have known since being directly involved myself in coverage of the École Polytechnique shootings in 1989 that there is something profoundly creepy, ghoulish, ultimately deeply dysfunctional about turning a slaughter of innocents into media ritual.

When the Columbine shootings occurred in 1999, there was agitation at the Western Canadian newspaper where I worked to send some of our hot shot—so to speak—reporters there. I argued fiercely against it, asking why we would do that, and what it had to do with us? The answer that came back was it was our chance to be “on the news”. See feeding vultures above.

Am I saying that if the media stopped covering such shootings, the shootings themselves would stop? Am I asserting that these school killings are DNA replicates of each other spread through the vector of media recklessness? I have no way of knowing whether any such thing is true.

But I convinced by observation and reflection that media coverage of these deaths—again, the deaths of children—is one link in a cultural chain that binds us to the normalization, the naturalization, the accepted inevitability of such unspeakable horrors; that binds us, in other words, to the culture of death.

Look, for evidence, to the programmatic responses not just of the reporters who cover the killings, but of the commentariat that rushes to fill op-ed pages and web sites and TV talking shops with analysis and sagacity based on the most trivial degree of speculation. Out of their necessarily incompetent incompetence—they don’t even know what they don’t know—comes thinking and, worse, language that gives what George Orwell called “the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Invariably, that devolves into the predictable binary dance of more gun control versus less gun control or statism versus liberty or progress versus status quo. The dead children, meanwhile, are no longer merely fodder for the news. They become feedstock for something even more sinister: irresolvable political dialectic.

I am in no way competent to propose a way to make this syndrome stop. But I know it must. It is horrifying—full stop—for the bodies of the murdered children to continue to pile up. It is a matter that almost justifies despair to watch as we are pulled, link by link, deeper and deeper into the culture of death.
 This blog also appeared at

Purchasing images

Want to use any of these images?

Contact Peter:

Media contacts

Peter is available for interviews, writing and online appearances.

Contact Peter: