Saturation Nation

Mass murder wasn't always a national story

As news broke of the campus shooting at Virginia Tech, the familiar protocols of big-story TV journalism went into effect. Anchors jetted off to Blacksburg, Va., to probe the grief firsthand. Graphics departments churned out strip-formatted logos to brand the coverage. And virtually all other news was ignored to focus on this latest exercise in morbid fascination.

But as familiar as these conventions of saturation coverage have become, it wasn't so long ago that a similarly violent tragedy would be considered unworthy of such national obsession. As few as twelve years ago, when violent crime was a bigger public policy issue than it is today, stand-alone crimes, however horrifically lethal, were treated by the networks as local stories.

According to an analysis of the top 10 mass shootings covered most heavily by the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts during the past 20 years, nine have occurred within the past decade (see chart).

Before 1998, only one rose to the level of national coverage: the 1991 shooting of 22 people at Luby's Cafeteria in Killen, Tex. Of the 10 shootings, it was the second deadliest; yet, it ranked last in minutes of coverage.

As mass shootings go, the one perpetrated in Virginia was of major proportions and was clearly a newsworthy event. But, should a single criminal act be accorded the newsworthiness of events of national and global scope: a war, a natural disaster, a presidential election campaign, a terrorist attack?

Granted, journalism is an exercise in storytelling, not bean-counting. Clearly, the newsworthiness of an event cannot be measured in proportion to its consequence alone. When 98 people perished in a night club fire in Rhode Island in 2003, that week's nightly news coverage (24 min.) was cursory.

On the other hand, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, with a death toll five times greater than the Virginia shootings, did qualify for saturation coverage (155 min. in its first week).

But it seems there is something about mass murders involving firearms that elevates these shootings from the local to the national stage. In its peak week, the 2002 sniper murders in suburban Washington D.C. attracted obsessive coverage (132 min). And the 1999 Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., the obvious precursor to this week's carnage, received comparable coverage in its first week (144 min), even though the death toll was half the size of this one.

Columbine offers another clue as to what touched a nerve in the Virginia story. Shooting sprees are much more likely to cross over from local stories to national ones if they are on campus: six of the 10 most heavily covered mass shootings in the past 20 years have involved schoolchildren or students.

But as such stories have gained in national stature, the network newscasts have lost their sense of proportion. In the Virginia shooting, 33 people died (including the shooter). By last Thursday, the nightly newscasts had accorded these killings 180 minutes of airtime—exceeding an entire week's worth of coverage of an Indonesian tsunami (156 min). On Tuesday, the story accounted for 96% of the combined news hole.

The “Massacre at Virginia Tech,” as the networks branded it, was truly a tragedy. But it was not 90% of what is newsworthy in the world this week.