Framing the Aurora Narrative: The Media's Dismissal of Mental Illness
Within the last two decades, a shift of tectonic proportions has occurred in how the news is investigated, produced, and reported. The advent of major cable news networks ensured that our news programs would henceforth be driven by ratings which generate advertising, instead of by anchors honestly and directly reporting the news (which is a difficult enough task even when not influenced by billions of dollars). As such, television journalism morphed from a forum designed for honest, objective reporting (or at least the illusion of such) to a partisan entity built upon bombastic personalities and in-your-face rhetoric. Further, and this is the scary part, in order to specifically purvey the information that best serves their purposes, these news outlets have gone away from reporting the news and have begun crafting the narratives themselves.
Mental Health and Violence
In the wake of the cinema shooting tragedy in Colorado, it seems appropriate to open a dialogue concerned with the link between mental health and violence. At this point, there is no specific information regarding the mental stability of the shooter, James Holmes, a 24 year old graduate school dropout, but common sense speculation points toward severe mental illness.
It is difficult and frustrating for a relatively sane person to understand how an individual can walk into a crowded theater and unleash hell indiscriminately. Just thinking about his possible motives is exhausting and disturbing, but we still need to ask the question: Why would Holmes arm himself with an assault rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns, with the intention of murdering whoever happened to have the misfortune of appearing in his crosshairs? What grand statements did he think he was expressing through his preternatural actions?
A similar event occurred last summer, although it didn’t receive nearly the same media attention. On July 7, 2011 a man named Rodrick Dantzler shot and killed seven people, while injuring two others not far from my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The attacks took place over the better part of an afternoon and evening at various locations (private residences, the police station sidewalk, the freeway, etc.) throughout our small Midwestern community. At the time of the murders, Dantzler, had been convicted of several felonies, struggled with substance abuse, and was receiving disability support as a result of a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
The inexplicable violence executed on that day was in no way related to a major movie franchise and the perpetrators handgun was stolen from a local residence. After receiving minimal national attention for a couple of days, the story was forgotten by even the local media within a week. Despite the fact that Dantzler suffered from a severe mental disorder, there was never much discussion in the media concerning his motivation. The news coverage focused on the carnage Dantzler caused and the fear he generated, rather than the sickness dwelling inside him.
Manic Depression's a Frustrating Mess
Bipolar disorder is a very serious condition that many people misunderstand. Historically referred to as Manic-Depression, it is marked by extreme elevation in moods alternating from intense hyperactivity to deep depression. Bipolar disorder can result in paranoid delusions and hallucinations. The condition is treatable with medication and/or therapy, but if left untreated, bipolar disorder can be extremely dangerous.
Dantzler described his personal struggles with the condition in a brief note that he left for his mother on the day of the shootings: “Mama, I know you gonna b (sic) sad and disappointed, but I’m tired of living with these demons in my head. I tried getting help but the medicine didn’t help! ... If hell is anything like what I deal with on a regular basis then I’ll be fine. Maybe God will understand and have mercy on my soul.”
This note wasn’t released until several months after Dantzler’s rampage, by which time the media had long since forgotten the story. As is usually the case, the only thing anyone will remember about the shooting spree is the violence. Most people have no knowledge of, or interest in, the cause behind the tragedy.
Full of Sound and Fury
The media’s handling (or lack thereof) of Dantzler’s bipolar disorder is completely unacceptable, and I hope that they don’t drop the same proverbial ball with Holmes’ sickness, whatever it may be. However, at this point, the media isn’t interested in even giving the impression that they are concerned with the pursuit of such an amorphous conversation. What they’re interested in is manipulating the circumstances of the tragedy in Aurora to their advantage. They’re feasting off the tears of the citizens they’ve sworn to inform in order to change the discussion from mental illness to a broad commentary on our culture of gun wielding violence.
As a result of last Friday’s tragedy, the gun control debate has blasted back into the forefront of our political culture by the American media machine, receiving heavy coverage on all the major news outlets from NPR to Fox News. Of course, little to no attention is being paid to the victims of Holmes’ wrath. The talking heads of these networks will assure the public that this is out of respect for the families of the slain, but this couldn’t be further from the truth (especially not in an election year). The mass media from both sides of the political aisle have hijacked this tragedy for their own political motivations in a selfish attempt to frame a Second Amendment narrative, denying the nation the opportunity to grieve and hold an honest dialogue about our fears and feelings.
This is not a Second Amendment issue, nor is it a matter of life imitating art. Neither of these shootings have anything to do with race, gender, or personal beliefs (regardless of what Bill O’Reilly would have you believe). This is a matter of a severely disturbed young man who has completely lost touch with reality and his victims who lost their life as a result of his sickness. As such, the media has a responsibility to make mental illness a focal point in any conversation about mass violence carried out by deranged individuals. Unfortunately, they will likely ignore this responsibility. After all, a panel of psychology professors discussing synapses within our brain doesn’t drive ratings like a posthumous clip of a rousing Charlton Heston speech at an NPR convention.