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Colorado shooting: How Americans deal with media-driven events

For better and for worse, society today is driven by sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately. The latest example: the Colorado shooting rampage.

By Staff writer / July 25, 2012

Two women embrace as they leave the memorial service for Gordon Cowdon at Pathways Church in Denver Wednesday. Mr. Cowdon was killed in the shooting rampage at a Denver-area screening of the latest "Batman" movie.

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As everyone from politicians to parents of slain children search for answers in the Colorado shooting, many observers say the high-profile event is just the latest example of both the progress and problems in dealing with violent, media-driven events.

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We live in a society driven by increasingly sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately, says  UCLA assistant professor and psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim, adding, “and this has a good and a bad side.”

Cell phone video clips from the Aurora movie theater provided a nearly instantaneous real-time window into events as they unfolded. Television coverage has blanketed everything from Monday’s court appearance by shooting suspect James Holmes to the personal stories of the victims and survivors.

Comfort in response to the shootings in Colorado

The positive side of such immediate, up-close contact, he says, “is that we collectively can respond as a society, we can send money and relief and bring people in to help because we can relate right away.” 

The downside, he says, “is that we are seeing it all through the lens it is being presented to us in.” This means we are being drawn through the event according to the biases and prejudices of the technology and the people behind it.

“By and large,” he points out, “these media are driven by ratings and the need to attract the largest audience,” not educate or uplift them.

We have shifted from a cool medium that provides some distance to the “hottest possible,” says Bernard Luskin, president-elect of the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association in Washington. “This means we are right in the midst of events now,” he says.

But as technology progresses, he says he sees little progress in the ability to respond and handle the deeper implications of violence. 

“The information is geared towards the needs of the people delivering the information rather than the deep, emotional needs for empathy and sympathy that the victims of real violence require,” he says.

At the same time, there has been marginal progress in certain areas, points out Dr. Karim.

Compare the coverage of the victims in the Colorado and Arizona shootings to the focus of the coverage in the Penn State scandal. 

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