Media Coverage of Orlando Tragedy Follows Familiar Scripts

Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Orlando Shooting
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

An outpouring of emotion and familiar narratives marked TV news coverage of the Orlando shooting.

As soon as word emerged, on Sunday morning, that 29-year-old Omar Mateen had called 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS right before opening fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the tenor of American television news almost completely shifted, from horror and chaos to a well-worn narrative. At first, the murder of at least 50 occupants of Pulse was so appalling that networks could barely cover it any other way.

Much of the somber coverage had all the hallmarks of hastily assembled productions: All the major news networks pulled in their usual law-enforcement talking heads and terrorism consultants in order to fill up the spaces in which there was no new information to share, and the same few clips of the daytime crime scene and the nighttime scenes of devastation were played over and over again.

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This was news that broke at 2 a.m. ET on a Sunday morning, and as the audience at home idly flipped on the morning news programs, possibly in the spirit of laziness usually reserved for days where sleeping in is possible, the news coverage served as a vessel of many painful emotions.

At first, the coverage had the quality of a terrible, extended rerun: When ABC transitioned to coverage of President Obama’s remarks, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos noted that the president has made similar remarks “so many times” before. Commentators echoed this sentiment, mentioning the Paris attacks, including the mass shooting at the Bataclan club, and the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn. Mateen’s weapon, an AR-15, is rapidly becoming “mass shooters’ weapon of choice,” per the Washington Post. And just the day before, “The Voice” contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed in Orlando, a case that took up the attentions of some of the same police officers who reported to Pulse. As more than one local official noted, some of the police in Orlando had been on duty for more than 24 hours by midday Sunday. 

But once the shock and surprise lifted, our 24-hour cable news networks — each with their well-worn grooves of political tendencies— collapsed back into their respective corners, often beating the same political drums that are already familiar to their viewers. Mateen’s invocation of ISIS transformed the conversation from one about gun control to one about Islamic terrorism. There was no point during the coverage where the media seemed comfortable exploring in depth the obvious motivation of homophobia, preferring instead to point to mental illness, a history of violence and, once it became known, the shooter’s Muslim heritage.

NBC News and MSNBC aired the same reporting, much of it anchored by Tamron Hall, who was later succeeded by Brian Williams. Hall and one guest, law enforcement expert Sean Henry, discussed the very thorny question of how a man on the FBI watchlist could have purchased two weapons recently, including an AR-15. That somewhat brief conversation alluded to an ongoing discussion about the fact that Republicans in Congress passed over legislation that would have prevented suspects on the FBI watchlist from obtaining guns. Based on Sunday’s coverage, in which the media was much more comfortable establishing the facts of the attack, a longer conversation about that topic is only beginning. 

Various commentators on Fox News were careful to note that “jihadists” would kill Americans with or without gun control, and the idea that they wouldn’t belonged in a “fantasyland,” according to one talking head. The same event was described in any number of coded ways: as a “hate crime,” “act of terror” or “mass shooting”; the words “extremism” or “homophobia” were often heard. Mateen was alternately described as an “ISIS fighter,” “unstable,” “American” and “a lone wolf.” When law enforcement officials talked about preventing these types of attacks, they often didn’t dig into the idea of preventing murders and instead used the vague term “increasing security.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, lately running for president, garbled all of this together in his Sunday appearances, in which he talked about a “warped ideology” and “a threat that has been a scourge to the world.” It was unclear whether or not he was talking about the warped ideology of homophobia, the threat of murder in the everyday lives of Americans or the scourge of Islamic terrorism.

All in all, the conflation of some of America’s most notable blind spots — Islamophobia, homophobia and lenient gun laws — confounded newscasters’ efforts to streamline coverage along one easily digestible narrative. It is difficult to discuss the massacre in Orlando without reckoning with all three of these issues. Mateen took arrogant selfies of himself both in a kufi, a hat often worn by Muslim men in Africa, and an NYPD T-shirt. By mid-afternoon, much of the day’s relevant information had emerged and fewer new tidbits were forthcoming (the last big news, as of publication time, was that the FBI interrogated Mateen in both 2013 and 2014 following up on tips from coworkers).

The commentators on major networks tried to tease out meaning from these deeply polarizing threads, but some weren’t given much time to do so. By 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC and CBS were back to their scheduled sports coverage — Formula 1 racing and the PGA, respectively.

It’s hard not to feel cynical about our national ability to process such tragedy, given our polarized and politically entrenched populace, when you’re watching news coverage scramble to find a convenient narrative that fits — and then some networks abruptly drop that coverage mid-stream (though, of course, more coverage and news specials will be forthcoming in the next few days and weeks).

All that said, there were a few moments on TV news today that felt powerful. Cutting through the endless chatter filled with the buzzwords of “homeland security” and “domestic terrorism” are words like “patriots” — a term that was used by Orlando police chief John Mina to describe the murdered clubgoers, who assisted each other during the terrifying events, many risking their lives to do so. These are people who, because of their sexual orientation or the company they keep, would have been seen as less than human just a few years ago, but time and again Mina and other officials referred to them as important and treasured members of the community. 

There were also these words from a queer activist on the ground in Orlando: “In the LGBT community, we’re a family. We accept each other for who we are. When something happens like this, it affects all of us.” Another member of Orlando’s tight-knit LGBT community, Patty Sheehan, Orlando’s first openly gay commissioner, made the rounds on cable news to comment on the tragedy. “This community is much more than violence… this is a community that loves,” she said. 

Even on Fox News, there were signs of… something: Anchor Eric Shawn interrupted a commentator who talked about profiling Muslims with the hurried remarks that surely, surely he meant only investigating Muslims who were possible suspects of crimes. The commentator, on the phone, tried to respond; much of his response is lost to time, because Shawn talked right over him.

Maureen Ryan contributed to this story. 

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  1. dred says:

    More liberal bias news from Variety…. follows the same ol’ script. Go ahead and censor this before someone finds out that Variety is more liberal media.

  2. Monique says:

    Exactly my thoughts, Ms. Saraiya. Besides being a sheltered populace, our citizens are so polarized in their views that it is impossible for discussion to take place. The media, although all over everything, rarely go beyond their prescribed boundaries. Therefore, what needs to get out in the open, and maybe change a person’s thinking, doesn’t. For example, we seem to be the only country spared the sight of gruesomeness, except for in movies, television shows, and video games. It’s as though we live in a fairy tale world. And because we’re protected from the reality of horror, hearing of the massacre of 50 of our citizens is, for a moment jolting, but then on to the PGA or “Divorce Court.”

    I was actually surprised and disappointed that the Tony Awards went on as scheduled, especially in view of how many in the theater world are involved in the gay community. Everyone wearing a little ribbon, and some making a brief allusion to the event, was small solace on the day of the Orlando tragedy. Couldn’t they have forfeited their award ceremony, or held it on another day, and instead, with all the talent of Broadway, scrambled to put together a show to honor the lives lost and to address homophobia, our gun culture, and the current-day issue of good vs. evil? That would have been a powerful alternative. The foreign media is so much more attuned to what’s going on in our country. I listen to them to get the real, unbiased story.

  3. tvlover44 says:

    excellent piece, sonia – thanks! even though i’m in the states, i used to live in london and so i got almost all of my news coverage on this event from the _guardian_ web site. checking in to u.s. sites and coverage later, i was struck by the difference, along many of the lines you point out.
    .
    also, in general i noticed two big differences: 1) the uk news coverage was much more in-depth and contextualized (that includes in comparison to mainstream u.s. print/online media) and 2) the uk coverage — similar to much around the world, i imagine – included an emphasis upon and analysis of the insanity of our gun culture and the politics surrounding it.

  4. Spike says:

    HEY EVERYONE, HERE’S A $64,000 QUESTION:

    WAS THE SHOOTER ON ANTIDEPRESSANTS?

  5. david joao says:

    I LOVED THE WRITERS SARCASM

  6. RSFinney says:

    The major problem with this writer’s assessment of today’s event, and the coverage by the networks’ covering the tragedy is crystallized in one paragraph written by Ms. Saraiya —

    “It’s hard not to feel cynical about our national ability to process such tragedy, given our polarized and politically entrenched populace, when you’re watching news coverage scramble to find a convenient narrative that fits — and then some networks abruptly drop that coverage mid-stream (though, of course, more coverage and news specials will be forthcoming in the next few days and weeks).”

    I have two points that I believe every writer who decides to do a snapshot view of TV news should keep in mind –

    1 – If you believe something is wrong, then be specific about your criticism.
    And offer the reader your thoughts on what you would have done under similar circumstances.

    Sonia Saraiya, a TV critic for Variety, and the writer of this piece writes, “you’re watching news coverage scramble to find a convenient narrative that fits.”
    How does Ms. Saraiya define her phrase “convenient narrative”? I’d like to know because I’m honestly not understanding what she means. But more to my point – exactly what, Ms Saraiya, would you have done differently if you were out in the field as a reporter, on the desk, or running one of the networks providing the coverage? I’m talking specifically about how your coverage of this horrific live event by the reporters, anchor people, executives who are managing the coverage would have been different if you were driving the car rather than writing about it from the backseat of the car. How exactly would you would have changed their approach and made the effort not a “convenient narrative.”

    2 You’re damn if you do and damn if you don’t when it comes to doing your job as a journalist.
    At least that is how it can feel when reading something like Ms. Saraiya’s article.

    She was not able to point to one specific wrong action by any journalist, or any network covering this tragic event, but somehow her entire article is written within the context that the media screwed up again. In reality, the coverage of today’s tragic event was actually solid, without any glaring ethical mistakes.
    There is a responsibility to do a good job and report the news, and in doing this, not to sensationalize or jump to conclusions before the facts are known. And in my opinion, at this point it doesn’t appear as if anyone or any of the networks covering this tragic event crossed that line.

    Apparently that was not enough for Ms. Saraiya. She needed to write her article for Variety and find something… something wrong. So she writes, “some networks abruptly drop… coverage mid-stream.”
    Never mind that she doesn’t actually call out any specific network to task (which is a big reveal of a larger agenda she has in mind in writing her article). In an age where news is covered 60/24/7, accessible to anyone in our country if they want more, deeper, latest, it is a mystery that Ms. Saraiya expects any of the networks not to move on.

    For the record, I’m politically moderate in my general views, but hardcore liberal on moral issues such as gay rights.
    So I’m a member of the choir calling out someone singing off tune.
    I’m also an ex-TV journalist who has had plenty of experience covering live events for broadcast news. It’s great when people/audience/professional TV critics offer thoughtful responses to how news coverage can be better.
    With that said, TV critics also have an ethical responsibility – to offer unbiased insight… sans any hidden political agenda.
    Ms. Saraiya, don’t take out your frustrations and pain about the moral state of the country and how you believe the news media can better service your political/moral agenda. And don’t expect readers to swallow your words under the pretense that your thoughts originated from an objective journalistic space. Your actions actually give people, like Sarah Palin, shelter/justification that claims of liberal media bias are warranted.

    • Mario500 says:

      That was a very harsh commentary about the article, RSFInney. I am sure its author was only trying to do his or her best to be critical and not trying to be like an objective news reporter.

    • AH says:

      Answering 1) I think it boils down to:

      “All in all, the conflation of some of America’s most notable blind spots — Islamophobia, homophobia and lenient gun laws — confounded newscasters’ efforts to streamline coverage along one easily digestible narrative. It is difficult to discuss the massacre in Orlando without reckoning with all three of these issues.”

      i.e. A lack of substantial engagement with these issues.

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