Media oversimplify coverage of Aurora shooting

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In the wake of last week's shooting in Aurora, Colo., the news media have been filled with journalists, elected officials, and others bemoaning the rampage as "senseless" and "evil." On its face, this most recent rampage killing does seem senseless -- until you bring mental illness into the picture.

When people with severe, untreated mental illness are in the grip of paranoia, delusions, hallucinations and psychosis, they can be capable of doing any number of irrational and unreasonable things that are harmful to themselves or others. The likelihood that James Holmes may very well be suffering from severe mental illness, and have lost control of his rational mind, makes the shooting look less like an "evil," "diabolical" act, and a lot more like an incredibly sad tragedy born of an inadequate mental health safety net and easy access to deadly weapons.

When media coverage of these types of rampage killings focuses on the evil and depraved nature of the perpetrator, it precludes meaningful discussion about what can be done to prevent them from happening. Media coverage of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper's comments is a case in point. Hickenlooper called James Holmes "warped," "twisted," a "creature," and portrayed the shooting as essentially inevitable: Such a "diabolical" person would have found a way to kill people even if weapons were harder to access. As BMSG discovered in past research on coverage of gun violence, this focus on the perpetrator is a common way that opponents of gun control argue against new gun policies.

In addition to minimizing the importance of gun control policies in preventing gun violence, this simplistic framing of the issue also ignores the essential role of mental health services. When people with severe mental illness are adequately treated, there is no evidence that they are any more violent than the general population. However, the mental health safety net in the United States is increasingly frayed and dysfunctional, incapable of preventing the types of tragedies that happened in Colorado.

It may make a good story to create a super-villain out of a deeply sick and disturbed young man, but villains and superheroes belong in movies, and the preventable causes of this rampage killing are all too real. We have a dismantled and crumbling mental health service system that consistently fails the mentally ill, their families, and the communities they live in. We have easy access to deadly assault weapons, vigorously defended by the companies that sell them. Add together an inadequate mental health safety net and assault rifles at every sporting goods store, and the tragedy of one family -- a son's descent into severe mental illness -- becomes the tragedy of many families.

It happened at Virginia Tech; it happened in Tuscon; it happened in Aurora; and calling it evil, saying that it is outside the bounds of human understanding, does nothing to open up a discussion of how to keep it from happening again.

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