On Tuesday, shots rang out on the campus of the University of Texas. A figure wearing a suit jacket and ski mask brandished an AK-47 firing at random. The shooter ran into the school library, still holding the weapon and climbed the stairwell, screaming, to the sixth floor although he didn’t seem intent on killing anyone. Finally, on the sixth floor and surrounded by police, the gunman — later identified as a 19-year-old mathematics major — shot himself.
Just one day earlier, Florida experienced its own share of violence. That morning, Patrick Dell broke the restraining order his estranged wife had filed against him and murdered her and his four stepchildren, before also killing himself. Later, in Lauderdale Lakes, a middle-aged man from Philadelphia caught up with his common-law wife, who had fled to the area to escape him. He shot her and again, turned the gun on himself. Last, the bodies of an aged couple were discovered that same day. Police believe that the pair decided to kill themselves because they both had serious health problems and feared losing each other.
What separates the UT shooting from these other acts of murder, violence and suicide? One answer is media attention. The UT incident was one of the top news stories of the day and spawned thousands of articles, while the other deaths garnered only modest coverage. What causes the media’s — and our own — fascination with school violence?
It is no secret that the media follows the dictum “If it bleeds, it leads.” Violent crime grabs our attention, and the media uses violence to boost ratings. This has led to what some researchers call the “commodification of crime”, wherein violence becomes a product for mass consumption. But this can’t be the full story. The UT shooting left only one person dead, making it less bloody than the Florida murder-suicides.
The media also focuses reporting on unusual crimes, but this explanation is likewise unsatisfying. Shootings on college campuses, although rare, are definitely not unheard of, and Tuesday’s incident has no weird twist that would intrigue viewers. The Florida incidents, on the other hand, are unusual by virtue of their close proximity in time and location. That is probably why they received what coverage they did, whereas other nameless murders were left unreported.
Media outlets prefer stories they can link back to previous occurrences. This allows them to tap back into the emotions, interest and controversies surrounding past events. School violence is perfect for this. The UT shooting opens the door to other incidents — from the killings at Virginia Tech all the way back to the Columbine shootings — which still have high emotional resonance with viewers.
But, again, this can only be part of the story. Driving the media’s output is our own underlying interest in violence on high school and college campuses. What drives this fascination? School aged children and young adults can easily identify with both perpetrator and victim. Parents fear that their own children could be threatened. Also, schools are viewed as a safe place set apart with the violence and turbulence of the “real world.” We are also intensely interested in the psychology of the gunman and the news eagerly reports bits and pieces of his past. We use these to create a narrative and explain an otherwise incomprehensible act. I believe what makes school violence so terrifyingly moving to us is exactly the fact it is hard for us to make sense of it. We understand killing for greed, hatred, love, and can even contemplate acts of pure evil. But school violence does not fit nicely into one of these categories. We are fascinated by it because we find it hard to understand how a student who is usually described as intelligent or promising can ever contemplate and carry out such an act.