Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Victims Fighting Back Is not Part of the Story Line

The now omnipresent coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre has brought forth various archival footage of shootings at the University of Texas, at Columbine High School, and other, similar atrocities.

One such crime, though, has been significant in its absence from the retrospectives, since the setting and background seem quite similar. If any readers can cite media reference in the current circus to the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law (140 miles from Blacksburg) back in 2002, the Influence Peddlers would be much obliged.

Second Amendment champions will presumably interpret this as simply another example of the mainstream media's hoplophobia, but more generally this seems to me to another case of the medium determining the message. Actual combat situations are almost impossible to photograph or televise honestly, because the situation of opposed wills colliding violently is almost impossible to frame comprehensibly: either one can focus on the activity of the forces friendly to the photographer, the police and fleeing students in this case, making them comprehensible and sympathetic, or one can focus on the enemy--distant and obscured, made powerful by their distance and mystery. This mystification of evil represents perhaps the most common and widespread manifestation of the distorting effect of the coverage, infecting even conservative thought, as explored elsewhere.

In either case, the totality of the situation has been collapsed into the frame of the camera lens, and the reality of the event has been cropped down into the point of view selected by the editor. A situation in which some students flee and some fight back has a visual narrative so confused that even if there are photographers present (at Appalachian Law School the situation was resolved and the shooter apprehended before the media circus could really begin), the likelihood of coherent photography emerging is almost non-existent. Since good photography is understood to be photography which tells the story, a confused narrative situation produces confused photography. In the absence of compelling visuals, the story will die away as the media moves on to cover and comment upon a situation with clear and compelling visuals.

The drawn out drama of a siege scenario with hordes of fleeing students being herded about by armoured SWAT police has compelling visuals and narrative; the chaos of some students fleeing, some fighting back and some still trying to come to grips with what is going on is unlikely to yield simple narrative images. In general storytelling terms, the media is always going to prefer the drawn out siege scenario, with clearly defined heroes, villains and victims to the more chaotic situation where the players do not clearly costume themselves to indicate their roles in the drama. The unfortunate reality is that the media, in these sorts of situations, see the people in civilian clothes as the victims, and the images they select to tell the story are chosen to reinforce that narrative.a>


Anonymous said...

The shooting at Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia was stopped by a retired Police officer, who had a concealed carry permit. When Katie Couric tried to make the point to the 'Today Show' audience that he was a trained officer, the student said something to the affect that 'anybody with a conceal carry permit could have done the same thing I did'. No shots were fired, as the murderer valued his life more than those of his victims. He gave up and put down his weapon at the first sign of somebody who could fight back with his own gun.

Philo-Junius said...

Actually, there were two armed law students involved in apprehending the shooter; both were police officers pursuing law degrees--although their professions were relevant mostly in that policemen routinely carry firearms off-duty, not that there was any legal reason a civilian who had a gun couldn't have done the same.

By the time the two law students confronted the shooter, the shooter had exhausted his ammunition, which seems to be the primary reason no gunplay ensued. Of course, the students had no way of knowing that when they intervened, and the shooter may have had additional ammunition squirrelled away nearby, so the students' actions remain as heroically praiseworthy as the complete lack of resistance at Virginia Tech remains regrettable.