SUSIE LINFIELD You can say mass death, gun violence, but these words are somewhat anodyne. Photographs can bring us closer to the actual experience of suffering.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How, finally, to break through the impasse over gun control? What if we all saw precisely what bullets do to the body of a child?
GAIL BOOKER I don't consider them graphic images. I consider them as images of the person they love so deeply.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also on the show, why one family gladly bears the pain caused by the widespread dissemination and repeated viewings of their loved ones murder. And what we still get wrong about covering gun violence.
LOIS BECKETT We continue to have the same conversation over and over, trying to prevent 1% of people from dying and not caring about the other 99%.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, politicians sat and listened to the parents of Uvalde, Texas. To say the testimony was heartbreaking, doesn't really cover it.
KIMBERLY RUBIO On the morning of May 24th, 2022, I dropped Lexi and Julian off at school. [CONTINUES UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Kimberly Rubio.
KIMBERLY RUBIO Lexi received the Good Citizen Award and was also recognized for receiving all A's. To celebrate, we promised to get her ice cream that evening. I told her we loved her and we would pick her up after school. I left my daughter at that school and that decision will haunt me for the rest of my life. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rubio paints a vivid picture of a family destroyed, but precisely how her daughter was ripped away. The details of that violence are obscured from us. As with nearly all mass shootings, we are mostly shielded from the graphic reality. The photographs from that day were all taken from a distance and outside the school. The truth is that the bullets of the shooter's assault rifle tore through the flesh of his victims, disfiguring them beyond recognition.
NEWS REPORT Today, a ten year old child, Jose Manuel Flores Jr, had to be buried in a closed casket. Eight days after families had to provide DNA to even identify some of their loved ones. [END CLIP].
JOSE FLORES SR One of the rangers told me it came to me like as a father. Our let you go back to the stadium. [CONTINUES UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Jose Flores Senior.
JOSE FLORES SR Because he was not recognizable. So I didn't get to hold him no more. I didn't go to see him no more. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Actor Matthew McConaughey, who is from Uvalde, noted at a White House press briefing this week that 10 year old Maite Rodriguez could be identified only by her shoes.
MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY Maite wore green, high top converse with a heart she had hand-drawn on the right toe because they represented her love of nature. The same green converse on her feet that turned out to be the only clear evidence that could identify her after the shooting. How about that? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Those green shoes implore the rest of us to look. Really look. In an op-ed for The New York Times. And why you, journalism professor Susie Linfield, asked whether, quote, the nation should see exactly how an assault rifle pulverizes the body of a ten year old. A violent society ought at the very least to regard its handiwork.
SUSIE LINFIELD You can say stoning, you can say torture, you can say concentration camps, you can say gun violence. But these words are somewhat anodyne, at least at a certain point. And one of the things that I think that photographs can do is actually make real clear to us what the actual experience of violence, of degradation of suffering is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You suggest that the whole world had that experience when they saw pictures of the Holocaust or of the liberation of those camps?
SUSIE LINFIELD Well, yes and no. That's actually an interesting example. And one of the points that I tried to make in the piece is that you should never assume that everyone has the same reaction to an image, to a photograph. Photographs are very, very slippery things. Most of the photographs of the Holocaust, certainly most of the iconic ones we know, but by far the majority were taken by Nazis. They were celebrating their atrocities. But at the end of the war, German civilians were forced to see photographs of the camps, and they were also forced to actually view the corpses, the piles of corpses that were still in the camps. Their reaction was not what the Allies had hoped. The reaction more often was a kind of resentment. Why were they being forced? They didn't have anything to do with this. The Allies were hoping that this would inspire a kind of moral reckoning among German civilians. But we know that that reckoning really didn't happen until the sixties. It was the next generation, the children of the perpetrators who began that reckoning. So I think it's very dangerous to think that showing an image will necessarily have one particular outcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That is fascinating, especially the generational difference in the impact of the pictures of the Holocaust, this kind of reckoning, which in the piece you describe as an Emmett Till moment. He was a teenaged victim of lynching in the 50s. His mother insisted that photos of his body be shared and the image was used in a lot of protests. It didn't launch the protest, but the picture enabled his story to be told, which educated many ignorant people about the horror of lynchings in the U.S.. But you also note there's a big danger in overstating the political power of any photograph.
SUSIE LINFIELD Yeah, and I think lynching is another very interesting example.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. They took pictures on the day and sold souvenirs.
SUSIE LINFIELD Exactly. They were actually postcards that white people in the South would apparently send to relatives, friends, whomever. So that's actually a very good example. Sort of like the Holocaust photographs. That what might fill one person with absolute horror is not interpreted by other people in the same way. Yes, the Emmett Till photograph did have, I think, a real impact on the public at that time. It did not create the civil rights movement, as some people have claimed. There was already a civil rights movement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not everybody is like Emmett Till's mother. You've even said that the parents of the children who died in the Uvalde killing would be traumatized if those photos were shared. Do journalists, do you think, have a responsibility to be sensitive to that kind of impact?
SUSIE LINFIELD Yeah. So this is, I think, a very thorny question, and it's one that I really grapple with. There is no doubt that the parents would be traumatized. I think that what this raises is the question not only who do the photographs belong to, but who does that event belong to. The event, obviously, first off, happened to the children who were killed and those who survived, but will no doubt be traumatized for the rest of their lives. It happened to their families. It happened to the town that they live in. But it also happened to the country. That assault was an assault on the country. It didn't just happen to the immediate victims and their families. This is sort of connected to the point that Hanna Arendt makes about genocide. That the genocide of the Jews, of course, happened to the Jewish people. But genocide threatens all of humanity. And I think that that's generally an accepted view now. That's why we have crimes against humanity. So, yeah, I do think it would traumatize the parents. At the same time, it has traumatized in a less immediate way, many other people in this society. The question is, can we have a collective response to the event?
BROOKE GLADSTONE One danger of sharing these images is that they might inspire copycat killers or that they're just torture porn.
SUSIE LINFIELD Yes. So that's the world that we live in now. It's not the world of Emmett Till. It's not the world of the Vietnam War. There is no doubt in my mind that were the Uvalde images released, that they would end up well in what we can only call torture porn websites that traffic in the most repellent and sadistic forms of torture and carnage. However, having said that, because that is the world that we live in, I don't think that we can let that dictate to us what we can and can't see. That would essentially allow those terrible, terrible sites to have a sort of veto power over images. I think that that's not a valid position for us to be in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE At one point you were asked to speak at a conference in Sweden. It was about Susan Sontag and you had a couple of really interesting encounters during that event. Would you share those stories?
SUSIE LINFIELD Yes, I did show some photographs there, which, aside from Nazi concentration photographs are the worst images I've ever seen in my life. These are what's called the Caesar images. So Caesar is the code name of a police photographer from Syria. The Assad regime in Syria has a kind of gulag of torture centers where thousands of people are tortured to death. Police photographers who before the war were taking sort of mundane pictures of car accidents, etc. Were delegated to take pictures in these torture centers. People with eyes gouged out, people starved to death, people mutilated in the most revolting ways. They are very, very hard to look at. Caesar started smuggling them out on discs. At this conference. I did show some of these, although I showed them very quickly because they are very hard to look at. And in the intermission, a young gal came up to me who I think was only about 20 years old, and I was not sure if she was born in Sweden or not. But in any case, her parents were political refugees from Eritrea. And she said to me that she didn't think that I should show those photographs, that it was insulting to the victims to show them in such a debased way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
SUSIE LINFIELD And she asked if someone in the audience was a relative of someone in one of those photographs. Would I still have shown that? And I said that would be very difficult. But yes, I would. After the intermission, I brought up this question because I think it's an important question. And a man rose from the audience, and he identified himself as a Syrian refugee. And he said that Syrians themselves were circulating these photographs among themselves. Partially to see if their loved ones were in these photographs, but also to show what was happening. And he said that he felt it was very, very important for the world to see what was happening. He essentially said, don't talk about protecting us by not looking at the photographs. You're just protecting yourself. So this was very interesting to me. Two totally, totally different views of what the morality of showing these photographs was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I wonder if you're saying that graphic images can bring people closer to the impact of these events. Why did they fail utterly to alter what the U.S. thought about the Syrian conflict?
SUSIE LINFIELD It was front page news in the New York Times. They were reported all over. The photographs were shown at the UN. Caesar testified before the US Congress, although Obama refused to meet with him. They were shown to John Kerry, who was then secretary of State and other world leaders, and they had absolutely no effect. The reason the Ceasar photographs failed is just bluntly that in the U.S., virtually no one in America, from the far left to the far right to everybody in between, had any interest in what was going on in Syria. There was no photograph that can budge a public that does not want to be budged. We live in a very polarized country. I think that one of the very few things that the left and the right in this country agree on is that they really could not care less about what happens in Syria.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings us back to Uvalde. Those are massacres on our own soil. And yet the sensibility of Americans and the sensitivity of photo editors make showing those pictures, I would imagine a very hard climb.
SUSIE LINFIELD Yes, it is. But we've forgotten how extraordinary what's going on in America is. How is it that we are living in a country where gunmen go into a school and shoot students in the face? The extraordinariness of that, I fear, is being lost. So in the perfect world, I guess what I would like is for those photographs to be shown to Congress. But at the same time, yes, I think that they would also be misused. I think that they would circulate on horrible websites in horrible ways. So on Tuesday, The New York Times read an op ed piece by Kim Phuc Phan Ti, who is commonly known as the, quote, napalm girl, the little girl in the photograph taken during the Vietnam War, running naked down the road, fleeing from a napalm attack. She talks in the piece about how the napalm attack disfigured her, mutilated her. She now lives in Canada and the title is It's Been 50 Years. I Am Not Napalm Girl Anymore. And she talks about how the photo was a source of great shame for her for many, many years. Here she is, naked, disfigured in front of the world, but that now she's glad that this photograph was taken because it shows the horrible reality of war. And she addresses Uvalde and what happened there. Here is what she says. I cannot speak for the families in Uvalde Texas, but I think that showing the world what the aftermath of a gun rampage truly looks like can deliver the awful reality. We must face this violence head on. And the first step is to look at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Susie, thank you very much.
SUSIE LINFIELD Thank you so much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Susie Lindfield is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Here's Kim Phuc Phan Ti speaking at the Vietnam Memorial 24 years after that photograph was taken.
KIM PHUC PHAN TI I do not want to talk about the war because I cannot change history. I only want you to remember in order to stop fighting and killing around the world. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Susie Linfield told us, quoting Susan Sontag. A photograph cannot change political will where there is none. But that isn't to say it can't make any change.
NEWS REPORT That photograph so transfixed the world that it helped lead to an end to the Vietnam War. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hardly. It raged on for nearly three more years. And we should note that U.S. forces were not responsible for that particular napalm attack. But that photo did add fuel to the fire of the anti-war movement by opening minds to the horror that war was inflicting on civilians. Few of us know, even now, the actual toll of civilian deaths in that war, though various accounts emerged in 1975 and again in 95. Estimates vary, but if one counts the work of all the armies at play, it seems to be as many as 2 million. 2 million. But at least Americans of a certain age have seared in their mind the image of that 9 year old girl screaming, fleeing, holding her arms away from her melting skin. We still remember Kim.
Coming up, the wrenching decision one family made to try to bring about change. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Visuals of excruciating events rally the convictions of the public because they serve as rebuttals to counter narratives, as legal evidence and as proof of what is cruelest or sickest in our species. They ignite cries for accountability, justice and change. We spoke to one family who was solidly behind the dissemination of the video of a brother's murder in a Denver jail, even though a dozen years after the fact, discussing his case still ignites intense rage and pain. Time hasn't healed that.
NEWS REPORT And happening tonight. A vote on the settlement for Marvin Booker's family. Denver City Council taking up how to settle this excessive force case.
NEWS REPORT Booker died in 2010. The Booker case, like so many other cases involving jailhouse violence, was also caught on camera.
PROTESTERS Marvin Booker! Marvin Booker! Marvin Booker! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in 2010. Spencer Booker lost his brother, Marvin, 56, and frail, a homeless street preacher, when five deputies shot him repeatedly with a taser while he was handcuffed. Put him in a sleeper hold and lay on top of him, all captured on video in a Denver jail and shared widely in the media. Spencer and his wife, Gail Booker, spoke to us this week.
GAIL BOOKER When the moment arrived to finally view the video. It was shocking. It was painful because things they never shared with us, we were now able to see it. We were told that it was an altercation on July 9th and that a deputy was injured, taken to the hospital, and Marvin is dead. That's it. But when we saw the video, we were able to see the interactions of the deputy. From the first moment she encountered Marty. You believe in the legal system. You've always tried to live a good life – a legal life. And then you're just kicked in the face with what the legal system is capable of doing to your loved one and trying to cover it up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The video was later shared all over the local and national media. You wanted it to be seen, and yet it must have been excruciating.
GAIL BOOKER It was excruciating because we thought as family members, we would be the first outside of the legal system to see it, only to find out they had talked to the ministerial organization of the city, telling them what they see – they don't see. Reporters were there to see it. It was like, okay, we've shown it to everybody to try to convince them what's on this video is not on this video.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You're saying that they were pre-interpreting the video in order to muddy the waters for the people who would later see it?
GAIL BOOKER That's exactly what I'm saying. To convince us that what we see is really not what we are saying, and how to interpret what we are seeing. So when you get this video, we'll have more power to try to cover this situation up.
SPENCER BOOKER Mitch Morrissey, the D.A., came out as a defense attorney and not the district attorney. He decided to defend as if it was a self-defense. But of course, that morning we saw it in living color, the last hours of his life, the last minutes of him fighting 5 deputy sheriffs who put him in a choke hold, laid him from face down, handcuffed them, put their body weight on him. We're talking about my brother, 4 feet 9, 115 pounds, these big officers laying on top of him and he could not breathe literally. And then they turned around and went and got a taser and tased him to his death. Yes, that's what we saw and that's what we wanted the world to see. And that's where the consideration was. Show us the tape, then. If he was so big and bad, show us the tape if he was able to handle you all behind four quadrants of a jail.
GAIL BOOKER And I want to make it clear, Marvin Booker never fought five deputy sheriffs. It was not a fight, period. The video does not show a fight. In the published ruling of this video by three competent judges on page 14 it specifically say that the video and summary shows Mr. Booker did not resist during the vast majority of the encounter. So that was no fight and that's what we were trying to prove all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it was about the truth, but it was also about justice. Do you feel like you got some or he got some?
GAIL BOOKER Not all of it. I don't feel like justice still has been finalized in my spirit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the trial, what was the judgment?
GAIL BOOKER Of course, it was unanimously by the jury that Mr. Marvin Lewis Booker was killed by five Denver sheriffs. They were not granted qualified immunity.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
GAIL BOOKER It was a clear cut case of, he was killed, no doubt about. Problem there is there still a missing taser that was used that night inside of the jail and no one want to know where it is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What's the significance of that?
GAIL BOOKER It will tell you exactly the corruption of the officials when they are investigating cases, how they cover up evidence. One of the most important pieces of any murder case: the weapon. Years later, after the case was finalized, it was finalized in the public's eye, but not in the family's eye. So daily, I would still read, still look at evidence. And I found something, took it back to the D.A., she opened the case back up. She got it to the grand jury, and they sealed the ruling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mm hmm.
GAIL BOOKER Which is the same thing they tried to do when you read the published ruling. They tried to seal that, too, but the judge just would not allow it. It's more about closure. It was the same thing that goes on every day, which is causing a lot of pain throughout this country. Are people affected by the loss of loved ones? With all the – give the family everything they need for closure. They already didn't have qualified immunity. Why did you seal the results of the grand jury?
SPENCER BOOKER It was very shocking to the conscience to see how they covered it up and act as if it was Marvin's fault. When overwhelmingly our lawyers, attorney Killmer and Mari Newman was able to peel back all of the evidence of really a criminal investigation. They were criminals that killed my brother. They they ambushed him. A man that is behind bars only for detention, ready to bond himself out in less than 4-5 hours. Ready to go on with his life, and they snipped his life from him. It was criminal. However, we could not prove it in the criminal case because the bar is higher. So we proved it in a civil case. In the civil trial, all of the evidence was brought out, even the Taser, the missing taser, because they could not get how many shots that they used on my brother, perhaps more than the book requires. So we get an overwhelming judgment, public outcry that they killed my brother. But they walked out of the same door we walked out of all five of them: guilty. Guilty, guilty. Held liable for my brother's death. But they walked out of the same federal courtroom and went back to work the next day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And they're still working? They didn't open a criminal case?
SPENCER BOOKER No. And that's the open wound right there. The open wound is that five people, five sheriffs killed my brother and they have not been criminally charged. We proved they tampered with the evidence. We showed it to the second D.A. Gail proved that this Sergeant Gomez misplaced that taser on purpose.
GAIL BOOKER By showing the video of her actions. This is why visual is important. It was the video that was showing her actions on other cameras while he was in the cell with no medical assistance. Instead of her trying to get medical help for him. She was –
SPENCER BOOKER –hiding the taser
GAIL BOOKER Which can be seen on video.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that particular deputy had been implicated in a similar case prior, right?
GAIL BOOKER That's one of them: Faun Gomez. Yes. She was the one who really had the zero tolerance contact with Marvin. When he got up, he had to sit in there all all day because they arrested him in the afternoon, took him to another facility, then moved him over to the jail. Well, he's just sitting there sleeping all night, all day. No actions with no one. And when it was time for him to come to the desk, you can see where he left his shoes, where he was sitting. He had on socks, it was a slippery floor. So she gave him the option. You can either sit down. Well, let me check you in or you can go to a cell. He said I'll go to a cell. He turned around to go back to get the shoes while she was leading to the cell. She went behind him. The video shows that once he was going down the steps, he nearly fell while she was reaching for him. And he took his jacket and jerked away from her because he nearly fell. Well, four more deputies come out of nowhere and attack him just for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I saw the video
GAIL BOOKER That's the purpose for the video to be able to interpret what really happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2017, the footage of his death and the story of his life was shared again in a documentary called Marvin Booker Was Murdered. What were your thoughts when you were first approached by the filmmaker? Were you into the idea?
SPENCER BOOKER Oh, yes, Wade gardner, who was the documentarian, had followed the trial from its inception, and he approached us to write a documentary on our process. And we welcomed it because we want Marvin story to be told. We need to shine a light on the corruption behind some of our police officers and their higher ranking officials who literally will cover up a murder. And the documentary really shares the ins and outs of even their legal team. Mr. Rice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Thomas Rice, the attorney who was representing Denver.
SPENCER BOOKER He just chalked it off as another day we lost. But none of my clients have gone to jail. They killed the man, but none of them are going to prison. And I mean, that was my brother, my children's uncle, my mother's birthday baby, who died at their hands. And they have not been held accountable. The five of them have not been held accountable. Gomez, Grimes, Sharpe. Robinette nor Rodriguez have been held accountable. They still have blood on their hands.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The documentary came out in 2017. It didn't have an impact at all.
GAIL BOOKER Not of making changes.
SPENCER BOOKER Not of making changes.
GAIL BOOKER And also the video went back at why is it so important? Because the documentary footage of the interviews shows remember what I said that night? We were told the deputy was injured. The documentary shows she was not injured. The video helped us understand all the lies that were told. It was the videos. And I go back to someone like Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Mobley, who said, I want the world to see what they did to my son. If you've never been affected by someone literally killing your loved one, a senseless murder, you don't understand the pain. You want the world to see the truth of what happened, how bad it is. At the emotions that you live with for life. This is just not a quick fix. Oh, we give them a couple of dollars and send them away and everything should be okay. No, it doesn't happen that way. It's a life time infliction on families. That the world need to see, visuallizing the faces of people, babies, loved one, Marvin. All of this. You see what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So after the many mass shootings in the last month alone, what do you say to the families who are thinking about sharing graphic images of their loved ones, of their children.
GAIL BOOKER I don't consider them graphic images. I consider them as images of the person they love so deeply. And if that's what helped them be able to maintain a daily life in these moments right now, I think they deserve whatever they need to survive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Reports of the funerals of the victims of Uvalde have started to come out. And one headline read, ten year old Uvalde, victim dressed in tiara at Open Casket wake. Gail, you mentioned seeing the open caskets of some of the children who were killed in that shooting and the impact that it had on you.
GAIL BOOKER My concern is the parents. The families. That's my only concern. And how do we move forward with the legal issues of gun control? That's it. See we're missing the parents are trying to continue to live. So I cannot tell them what they need. I'm supportive of whatever they do.
SPENCER BOOKER To do the open casket is a process of sharing their anger, their frustration. Gun violence is all over America. Where I pass through here in St Louis, someone is killed every day. Someone is shot every day. We have allowed people to purchase guns at 18. And they utilize those guns for mass killings of babies. What is wrong with that picture? Citizens are begging for gun control and our political leaders are not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE All right. You guys have been really generous. Thank you very much.
GAIL BOOKER Thank you for listening to our pain. Good therapy. Good therapy. But, you know – it doesn't go away.
SPENCER BOOKER No, no, it's okay. We want the world to know that this is a painful journey and that a change must come of how we deal with all these killings of unarmed people. Every time we discuss it is like pouring salt on an open wound that just happened yesterday. So keep us in your prayers as we still wrestle for solutions to get this behind us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Spencer and Gail Booker lost Marvin Booker in 2010. Spencer is a pastor in St. Louis. Coming up, school shootings account for a tiny percentage of annual gun deaths, but they occupy the vast majority of the headlines. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been 3 weeks since we last did a show that led with a mass shooting. It was after ten people were killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Since then, 49 mass shootings have happened in the U.S. Amid a deepening sense of mayhem and woe. Did we feel that way back in August of 2019, on the heels of two shooting rampages days apart in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio? I can't even remember. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote then about journalists and mass shootings that even when it happens twice in a 24 hour period, even when the death tolls soar into the dozens, we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened. We profile the shooter. We tell about the victims lives. We get reactions from public officials, she wrote. It's difficult. Gut wrenching work for journalists on the scene. And then there's the next one and the next one. If journalism is supposed to be a positive force in society, and we know it can be, this is doing no good. Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian. She's covered gun violence for the paper for many years. She says that mainstream coverage of the issue is flawed because it's focused mainly on one type of tragedy. She explained to me when I spoke to her three years ago, and things haven't much changed, how better coverage would mean focusing on the root causes of gun violence.
LOIS BECKETT Our whole gun violence conversation is driven by mass shootings, which are incredibly horrific and statistically still even now, very rare events. If you look at the people who are dying from gunshot wounds in this country, it is primarily people dying from suicide. That's two thirds of it and people dying in every-day shootings in local cities and places where there has been concentrated gun violence for decades. And mass shooting victims make up maybe one or 2%. So we continue to have the same conversation over and over, trying to prevent 1% of people from dying and not caring about the other 99%.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have for a long time been an advocate of solutions in the coverage. How do you propose incorporating solutions?
LOIS BECKETT So when we talk about solutions, journalism, I think what we're saying is we want to push back against the inaccurate biases of our readers, of our listeners, that nothing can be done, that nothing is possible. I don't think we need to overstate claims, but I think it's really important that we're accurate about what we do know about what works to save lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When we examined solutions journalism, one thing that a very strong advocate, Tina Rosenberg, told us is that it's not always about solutions that work. Sometimes it's solutions that don't.
LOIS BECKETT If you think about the single policy that's getting the most attention right now as part of America's gun control debate, it's whether or not the country should ban military style assault weapons and whether there should be even a mandatory buyback of the assault weapons that Americans currently own. And the fact is, two things are true at the same time. It is undeniable that guns, like the AR 15, are a fetish object for mass shooters that have been used in one terrible public mass shooting after another. And it is also true that handguns have always been responsible for the overwhelming majority of gun homicides. Americans are having fierce and furious debate about whether to ban the kind of gun that is not used in the majority of gun murders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said we have no gun registry. That's another proposal. If we license people to drive cars, why not to use guns? And then, of course, the common sense legislation that people referred to like universal background checks. There's the red flagging issue. Which of these do you think would be helpful or do you think none of them are?
LOIS BECKETT So if we talk about policies that have more science behind them, extreme risk protection orders, which are sometimes called red flag laws, are really promising. Conservatives are more open to them. The laws are based not on the government knowing when someone is dangerous or not, but on the judgment of someone who is closest to a person at risk, whether that's law enforcement, family members, people at school or coworkers. And the idea is that the bar for getting your gun rights removed permanently under federal law is really high. And the thing about extreme risk protection orders are they don't remove your gun rights forever. The idea is that it tries to line up the law more closely with when people are actually in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. And the second reason that this policy is so good is that it's gotten a lot of attention because of mass shootings, but it tends to be used most often to help people who are suicidal. And that's so important because gun suicide is two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States. And so rather than a policy that's just driven by the rarest kind of violence, these extreme risk protection orders are actually relevant to the most publicized and well known kinds of violence and the kinds of violence that's actually hurting the most people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Don't you think, though, that the media's focus on school shootings and other high death toll tragedies prompt more outrage and potential for change than suicides and domestic homicides say that may be less relatable to the people who might push to make changes.
LOIS BECKETT So there's two ways of looking at that. One is more optimistic. One is the fact that, you know, after Sandy Hook, there were a lot of suburban white parents who did not think that gun violence was relevant to them at all, who started getting involved in the gun control movement. And as part of doing that, they began to learn that gun violence didn't look like they thought it did. I talked to a woman in suburban Indianapolis who met a black mom from the center of Indianapolis and realized that, you know, the way that that mom's son got shot didn't meet her expectations of what gun violence looked like. And so that the fact of people getting involved in activism, no matter what brings them in, that you learn through that. But on the other hand, if you were trying to fix a problem and you are fighting for the wrong solutions, that getting more people involved to advocate for things that even might be counterproductive is incredibly dangerous. There is so much tremendous focus on school safety and fortifying schools and surveilling students and adding video cameras and watching what students are doing online. Almost none of this has any evidence behind it. And the best thing that we know is that more police in school and more surveillance in school and spending a lot of money to turn schools into bunkers has actually led to more violence, has made students less safe. And it's all been done by parents who want to protect their children and they are doing the wrong things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've written about the changes that Columbine made. The school shooting in our era.
LOIS BECKETT Columbine really fueled a focus on zero tolerance policies in schools and continue to push to put police officers in schools to protect students from extremely rare school shootings. What researchers and activists have found is that that appeared to disproportionately affect students of color, to have fueled the school to prison pipeline. The attempt to make American kids safer by putting police officers in schools seems to have just left a lot of kids in the criminal justice system, and that doesn't make anybody safer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the solution reported by NBC Nightly News on a $48 million school that's, quote, designed to deter active shooters? In Fruitport, Michigan.
NEWS REPORT No more lockers in the hallways. Instead, short lockers in a common area so teachers can see 900 students at once.
SCHOOL OFFICIAL And we also installed these wing walls to provide safety for students to hide behind if there's a threat down the hallway.
NEWS REPORT A grant from Michigan State Police paid for impact resistant film on the windows and a special system to lock down specific sections of the school. [END CLIP]
LOIS BECKETT That kind of credulous coverage that accepts the false belief that children are most at risk of being shot in schools is incredibly dangerous. There are 1300 American school aged kids who die every year from gunshot wounds, 700 from gun homicides, 500 from gun suicides, about 90 from gun accidents. And if you look at the data going back for decades, schools are actually the place where American kids are least likely to get shot. Of all school age homicides going back for 20 years, less than 2% of those are in schools. And so what we have right now is a society in which kids are getting shot in their homes and in their neighborhoods and they're safest at school. And our response to that is to design barricaded fortresses of schools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do you think the press should be reporting on? What do you want to see in the coverage?
LOIS BECKETT I think one of the things that journalists really can do is focus on solutions, but also focusing on what their individual readers, or listeners, have the power to do. Because if you talk to longtime gun violence prevention advocates, people like Nicole Hockley, who lost her son at Sandy Hook, they will say that the biggest enemy really isn't the National Rifle Association or gun rights advocates. It's the cynicism and exhaustion of everyday Americans who just don't see any evidence that anything can be done to help except maybe buying a gun to protect their own families because there's nothing else that they see that they have power to do. And so I think we not only need to focus more on policy and things that are working, but also think more about providing people with information like what do you do if you're worried about someone in your life? Because what we do know about mass shootings is that there are almost always red flags, that people are nervous, that people thought something was wrong. But people also don't want to hurt someone. That they care about and they just don't know who to go to for help. And so I think we need to do a lot more work and trying to think how do we serve not just people who are watching these shootings, terrified at home, but what journalism are we providing for the people who have a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs, who think something is wrong and they don't know what to do?
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if you were going to issue a guide to journalists covering this issue, what would you suggest? The three things they should stop doing and the three things they should start doing.
LOIS BECKETT I think the most important thing for good journalism on this issue is to challenge people's fears and conceptions and to see what violence actually looks like in this country. Fact checking, all of these different school safety measures, talking very particular terms about what kinds of guns are actually most dangerous in the circumstances in which people die, so that you can look at the coverage and say, is this coverage pushing back at my assumptions about what's happening, my assumptions about what will make the most difference. Does this coverage include solutions? Am I learning about the different things that people are trying to make a difference in this issue? And also, is it honest about when solutions don't actually work that well, that not all gun control laws might be that helpful? Is this coverage looking at the big picture because that's a real public health approach to gun violence. It's not just about legislative action. There are a lot of different methods and approaches to this. One of the frightening things is just the knowledge that with the more violence that there is in the media, with the more focus there is on these horrific acts that we are seeing that encourages more Americans to arm themselves. And that means that then the rare incidents in which someone misuses the gun that they own with domestic violence or with suicide, that those might be increasing. And so it's hard to look at this and know that what we're seeing now is a continued escalation. And what we really need to do with this whole issue with the media and everyone else is de-escalate and remind ourselves the reasons that we have to trust each other and not be afraid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lois, thank you very much.
LOIS BECKETT Thanks for talking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian. This interview first aired in 2019.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Susanne Gaber with help from Savannah Collins. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.