An agitated military veteran walked into a VA clinic in Austin, Texas in April, and while in a waiting room with hundreds of people, shot himself to death. He was the 19th military veteran to kill himself in a VA facility in the last two years.
In Thousand Oaks, Calif., near where I live, a military veteran walked into a dance club and bar last November and killed 11 people before killing himself. (A deputy sheriff who tried to capture him was killed by friendly fire.)
Life goes on in Austin and Thousand Oaks where people now attach bravery to the area code (with social media hashtags like #805Strong, the Ventura County area code) and discuss how the community came together after the tragedy. There were concerts and memorials. Many people gave money to the families of the victims.
These examples are the most horrific, but our news pages are filled with the incidents that attract the TV trucks from out-of-town: domestic violence that ends in multiple deaths; hate crimes; “suicide by cop” and more.
Newspapers often report these stories in two stages: a two- or three-day coverage of the “senseless tragedy” featuring stories of the deceased followed by reporting on the memorials or community ceremonies and fundraisers. I suggest that newspaper reporters and editors have an obligation to break through the traditional way of covering such a tragedy or any other social ill, and report both the root causes and whether meaningful change is accomplished. It’s fine for people to attend memorials and give donations. It helps us to salve the wounds and support the families. But after those ceremonies are over, we are obliged to strip the sentiment and report the underlying situation that caused the tragedy to begin with.
Here are some examples:
Domestic violence, bullying and multiple shootings: Physical and verbal violence plague our communities.
Get at the root causes of violent behavior by young people. Why do so many of them resort to physical or verbal violence? Where do they learn this behavior and how do we unravel this?
In my community, the local school board in the weeks after the shooting spent no time talking about or giving additional funding to conflict resolution programs in grade schools. (These are tested and effective programs that teach children to resolve their differences peacefully.) No counselors were added to any school budget to help children deal with their issues caused by bullying or violence.
In the same vein…
Gang violence: There is endless coverage of shootings, followed by the occasional march against gang violence. We should be covering the sociologist and law enforcement officials who know the root causes of gang violence and have some solutions for how we mitigate it.
Health care for veterans: We all run articles from Washington when there’s a hearing that decries lack of care. But there is a deeper story here. VA hospitals are severely undermanned. The medical professionals are poorly paid and many in the field stay away because of their medical school debt and the opportunity to make more in the private sector.
Your community probably loves Memorial Day and Veterans Day services that you cover, but the larger story is in the treatment they fail to receive when returning home. This is a serious issue that only seems to get attention when a veteran kills himself or others.
Homelessness: We cover the opening of homeless shelters. How rarely does our coverage focus on the issues that create homelessness? Here’s what I mean. When a property owner proposes to build housing in the community, especially “low income housing,” we cover the “not in my backyard” argument in the context of a city council dispute. It isn’t. It is the root cause of homelessness because if you don’t build additional homes, supply and demand drives the cost of housing out of reach for many who are just a paycheck away from being homeless.
Racism/Anti-Semitism: When there’s a swastika painted on a synagogue, we react with shock and horror. We fail to write openly about everyday racism that divides us, but instead spotlight a single action without proper context.
Cops as mental health counselors: With the shortage of mental health funding, most local governments are, in effect, asking their police officers to become the mental health counselors for those struggling with mental illness on the streets or in homes. This is a secular shift in America and it’s not being covered with the depth it deserves.
I know that we can do better. We owe this to our communities.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.