A gunman in Las Vegas opened fired and killed at least 58 people in a heinous act Sunday night that has since been described by many in the media as the “deadliest mass shooting” in U.S. history.
Yet to describe it in such terms is to whitewash history, as it negates more deadly mass shootings and race riots throughout American history that impacted people of color. The shooting, as horrific as it is, also serves as a useful reminder to those in the media to be watchful of the language used to report and share a story.
Many learned this lesson last year during the horrific massacre at Pulse nightclub in Florida where another lone gunman, Omar Matteen, opened fire killing 49 people, mostly LGBT Latinos, and wounding nearly 60 others.
At the time, the Pulse massacre was also described by some in the media as the “deadliest shooting in American history.” Some platforms simply called out this inaccuracy, while others used it to provide a broader discussion of America’s long history of mass gun violence.
Among the latter were organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who jointly issued a statement last year to urge journalists to report the story accurately and refrain from using superlatives altogether “as comparing Sunday’s tragedy to other incidents in history does it no justice,” their statement read.
“If the decision is made to add a superlative, [the Pulse] shooting would count as the deadliest shooting in recent or modern history,” it continued. The statement cited at least two separate occasions in American history where mass shootings resulted in higher death tolls than that of the Pulse massacre. For one, the East St. Louis Massacre in 1917 led to the killings of more than 100 black Americans who were beaten, shot and lynched. It is estimated that another 60 to 100 black Americans were killed in a similar act of mass racial violence in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873.
Between 1864 and 1890, three other mass shootings ― the Sand Creek, Clear Lake and Wounded Knee massacres ― cost the lives of hundreds of Native Americans and pioneer settlers by U.S. Army men across the midwest. The Tulsa race riots occurred when a mob of white rioters ransacked a segregated area known as “Black Wall Street” in a shooting and looting rampage that killed close to 300 people.
“It’s important journalists do more than recognize this as a mass shooting, but also the overwhelming impact on the Latino community not just in Orlando, but the country,” said NAHJ President Mekahlo Medina in June 2016. “Journalists must also put the shooting into proper context with history.”
NABJ yet again served this reminder Monday morning:
The Las Vegas shooting is horrific and tragic, and as we mourn the lives of those who died, we must ensure that all information and facts reported about the case are accurate. Definition and language is critical, especially in developing news stories, and they can play a critical role in shaping the overall narrative of a story.
We can pay respect to all the lives lost to mass gun violence, and still get today’s stories straight.