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The Stories That Break Us, The Stories That Bind

Remember the mass shooter who planned and executed an attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando possibly because of his own unreconciled sexuality? It never happened.

The mass shooting at The Pulse nightclub definitely happened, but the narrative around it was wrong from the start. I'm a poor consumer of mainstream news and still I was left with the erroneous impression that the sexual orientation of the victims was central to the event. It's understandable that even without consuming media one would conclude that this was an anti-gay hate crime. The victims were gay it happened in a gay nightclub. The story, like most of reality, is more complicated than the narratives we use to contain it. This illustrates the problem with a media more concerned with getting out the first just-so story that confirms our impressions and prejudices. It's worth pondering the ways in which this damages us.

In the wake of the shooting, the media and public focused on certain details, many of which were later determined to be unfounded, and discounted others, like Mateen's own explanation of his actions.

This line from Jeltsen's account of Noor Salaman's trial as an accomplice to the massacre came back to me in the aftermath of the mass shootings in Atlanta, GA and Boulder, CO. Following the Atlanta shooting, the race of the shooter and the fact that most of the victims were Asian became central to the explanation for the shooting. Despite Robert Aaron Long's account of his actions, shame over what he called his sex addiction and the temptation of massage parlors, everyone across social and news media knew that the shooting occurred because of racism, that it was explicitly anti-Asian violence. While it's possible that Long feels some animus towards Asians, it's a bit absurd to suggest that a man who killed eight people only claimed it was due to sex addiction because he didn't want to appear racist.

The race of the Boulder shooter was also central to the immediate conversation following that mass shooting on the heels of the Atlanta massacre, 

until it became clear that the shooter, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, wasn't a white man. 

Almost as striking as the speed at which race became irrelevant is the lack of speculation about the shooter's motives. One might expect that the absence of a statement from Alissa would act more as a vacuum to be filled by external explanation than the Atlanta shootings, not less. Instead, it's almost ignored by the media because it doesn't easily fit the accepted narrative the way the Atlanta shootings do: white men are the greatest danger to the country. Some outlets are finding ways to tie the mass shooting to the accepted narrative despite the facts:

Along with the attempted carjacking by two black girls of a Pakastani immigrant which resulted in his death in Washington, DC, I'm waiting for the narrative to settle on white supremacy as the cause. I know this may read like a social conservative lib hater, but this is just my understanding of my observations. One thing that I've observed is violence towards Asian Americans being blamed on white supremacy regardless of the culture and race of the perpetrator.

Based on the coverage so far of the two mass shootings and the carjacking death it seems that the speed of coverage has less to do with the desire to be first than having a story than can easily be made to make sense. Accuracy is irrelevant. This matters, because one role of journalism is to tie the facts together cohesively, to answer the 5 Ws and how, give context. Or, it used to be. Increasingly it seems that the role of journalism is to tell the story that attracts the most attention while ignoring facts. 

The most viral story from the Atlanta shootings was the impression that law enforcement officials blamed the shooting on Long having a bad day. This was based on a tweet by Vox journalist Aaron Rupar containing an edited clip from the press conference with his own commentary.

The dishonesty becomes obvious watching the full clip. But even watching his excerpt, it's clear that Rupar is lying in his explanation of the quote. The official is detailing what Long told investigators, not offering his impression of Long's mental state. Based on Rupar's lack of remorse, it appears the deception is deliberate. The lie generated a lot of attention for him, stories were written from that perspective, and it's miles from anything worth considering journalism. Despite Long's explanation for his actions, it helps the argument that anti-Asian racism was at the heart of the action. It rests on the meme that all cops are racist and sympathetic to white supremacists. "Of course they'd blame something other than racism."

More important than how this might reflect on Rupar as a journalist is how these types of simplistic narratives and deliberate deceptions from journalists harm us. Anti-Asian violence and racism has been a central topic for the last year with COVID. There has been a stream of reports on the rise in violence towards Asians, but it's worth noting the rise in violence overall over the last year. Domestic violence rose as did gun violence. Although this chart only details gun violence, missing many other attacks and beatings, Asians are 1.7% of the victims. Are Asian victims of non-gun related assaults so numerous that these numbers are dramatically changed when also considered?

Do the numbers justify almost nightly stories about Asian individuals being attacked, or is every attack amplified because it fits the current narrative about Asians as victims? Does this amplification help to end the violence or is it just amplification? If the point is to address the violence directed at Asians, it starts by confronting the huge uptick in violence overall. There is no way to target relief on such a diverse dispersed group effectively. 

The "Asians attacked" narrative fails to focus on where these attacks happen. This matters because it's arguable that in a number of these cities, San Fransisco and New York in particular, the anti-Asian sentiment is top down. The move to change the admissions process for exam schools is due to the "over-representation" of Asian students in these schools. The San Francisco school board just removed from power a vice president who had posted several anti-Asian tweets, which she stood behind.

The irony is that with both the violence and academic achievement Asians are looked at as separate, other. Perhaps that's the issue. We would all be better served by seeing the violence directed at Asian victims as part of the overall wave of violence we need to confront. Similarly, rather than dismissing the effort required to pass entry exams we could better study how poor first and second generation students succeed to share with other students. Failing that, perhaps we could just make all of our schools better. Regardless, it's the narratives that tie us together that will help make us all less vulnerable.


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