How Not to Cover a Tragedy Like the Fort Hood Shooting

Pseudo-factual infographic from the Huffington Post, which has since been retracted

Pseudo-factual infographic from the Huffington Post, which has since been retracted

The shooting last week at Fort Hood dealt a heavy blow to  the military community. Soldiers were murdered in their garrison workplace. Families, friends, and colleagues feared the worst, then mourned the losses. And at the same base where an entirely unrelated mass shooting took place less than five years ago. Many news outlets and responsible journalists covered this shocking news with tact and respect. Others, not so much.

The morning after the incident, I got a call from a news outlet asking if I’d be available for an interview. I thought first about how important it was to remind the public not to jump to conclusions, but then I thought a little deeper about it. I decided that I just didn’t have any business contributing in any way to the speculations and hasty assumptions of any flavor that were going to happen. After seeing so much of the coverage that ended up happening, I’m glad I made that choice.

I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize some especially atrocious coverage of the incident. There was a lot of irresponsible, sloppy, knee-jerk, and/or downright silly stuff to choose from. Here are my top picks:

1. The Huffington Post’s “This Map Shows the Deadly Aftermath of War Right Here at Home.” Retracted due to the complete outrage over how irresponsible this was, the article purported to analyze the murders committed by post-9/11 veterans using alarming dots and graphs that completely misrepresented the data. When you have military-hating Gawker debunking your article, you know you’re in trouble. Bottom line: the 194 murders committed by post-9/11 veterans since 2002, while terrible and tragic, simply do not constitute an epidemic, and the rate this represents falls below the murder rate for the general population. A clear-headed rebuttal of this article is located HERE.

2. McClatchy’s “Large numbers of vets with PTSD live near military bases.” Perhaps McClatchy’s wanted to issue a public warning to innocent civilians who found themselves otherwise living obliviously in military-friendly communities near VA treatment facilities, military hospitals, PXs, and commissaries where veterans of all ages congregate to more easily access their benefits. Take this sentence, for example:

“In fact, the communities adjacent to military bases have the highest number of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a concentration that reflects the tendency of former soldiers to settle near bases once they leave the service but also raises concerns about base security.”

Then the article proceeds with a graphic even more alarming than the Huffington Post’s, entitled, “PTSD hotspots surround bases” that includes a zip code lookup feature that will tell you how many veterans rated as having a service-connected disability for PTSD live in your zip code. Also a scare quote about veterans with PTSD:

“Most of them are fine. But there is an elevated risk. All things being equal, PTSD does increase risk.”

This passes as journalism? Do we really need an online tool telling us who around us got help for their service-related PTSD? Smells to me like a sex offender registry. Does McClatchy’s have an editor? Or journalistic standards?

3. Buzzfeed’s “Inside Fort Hood, The Site of Tragedy and Everyday American Life.” Perhaps the good folks at Buzzfeed had never previously heard of a military base, but this photoessay of street signs, exotic locales like Chili’s, Burger King, and a golf course, and items on sale at the PX is, at best, silly. At worst, it demonstrates that Buzzfeed had no idea that the men and women who serve in today’s military live anything like the rest of America. And for that Buzzfeed should be embarrassed and ashamed.

4. The Los Angeles Times’s “Why did the Ft. Hood gunman do it? Because a gun-crazy country let him.” This op-ed ran the morning after the shooting. And the rule applies: if you have a fast answer to a complex problem, it’s probably not worth much. The author later amended the article to recognize that guns are in fact strictly controlled on military bases, and other media outlets (and Congressional offices) exploded with messages about one side or the other of the gun debate. Which gets everyone exactly nowhere with that political football, and completely misses the realities of this tragedy for the people and community involved. Way to go, guys.

I have to credit the many smart veteran and military-connected voices out there who were quick to speak up on several of these articles, and others like them. It has been a great thing indeed to see reasonable people pushing back on bad journalism, sparking productive debate, and urging media outlets to treat complex issues like PTSD and veteran reintegration credibly and responsibly, and with facts instead of ridiculous assumptions. I hope to see this community grow and become even more influential voices of reason in the future. Please feel free to add your observations in the comments below.

My condolences to the families of the victims, the Fort Hood community, and all others affected by this tragedy.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Cover a Tragedy Like the Fort Hood Shooting

  1. It’s sad that the media creates news for the sake of sensationalism and pretend expertise rather than focus on the truth and putting things in perspective for the public. This is why I prefer to read blogs because it usually gives a clear point of view especially from someone who has personal background experience. Great blog. Well put!


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