Barely a week later, he was doing No. 16. It fell to Blackwell to break the news to CNN viewers Tuesday afternoon that a South Texas elementary school had just been attacked by a gunman. By night, the death toll had reached 19 children and two adults.
Media coverage of the massacre in Uvalde feels like a grotesque deja vu — the initial police alerts, the teeming crime scene, the live helicopter shots, the family tragedies and, inevitably, another round of inconclusive debates about gun control and mental health.
NPR host Rachel Martin said mass shootings have become so routine that her station now has an informal playbook to cover them.
“Every single time, there is an urgent need to represent the loss in those communities and to hear the stories of the victims’ families and the outrage, but it has become this painful routine that is just excruciating,” she said, and paused, holding back tears. “It’s hideous.”
News coverage of mass shooting has become so ritualized that it was famously satirized by the Onion newspaper in 2014. Headline: “’No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
The Onion has republished the parody more than 20 times since, including last week and then again Wednesday, when every headline on the homepage read: “No Way to Prevent This.”
In this case, satire isn’t all that far from reality.
On May 16, the New York Times published a partial list of mass shootings, writing that “the massacre in which 10 people were killed in a Buffalo supermarket on Saturday was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States so far this year.”
This week, that piece had been updated to reflect the new deadliest shooting of the year with just a few word swaps: “elementary school” for “supermarket”; “Uvalde, Tex.” for “Buffalo”; “10 people” for “19 children and two teachers.”
The Washington Post acknowledged it did much the same thing with a story published Wednesday on how to talk to children about mass shootings.
“We’ve written this story too many times,” the article began. “Instead of writing a new one, we are revamping tips we’ve compiled in the past about how to talk to your kids about scary things. This applies to this most recent horrific shooting. We wish we didn’t have to continually reup these tips, but here we are.”
Martin, who co-host’s NPR’s “Morning Edition,” said in an interview that she has lost count of the shootings she has covered. Her first was as a reporter in 2007 when she covered the Virginia Tech shooting in which 32 people were killed and 17 injured by a student gunman. She has covered so many since then that “it’s really telling that I can’t even name to you all the shootings.”
Martin said NPR’s editorial meetings after each of these events features an all-too-familiar checklist: Have we heard from the victims’ families? What is the public safety official in charge saying about the suspected shooter? What about a local clergy member who can talk about how the community is coming together? Who is covering the candlelight vigil?
“It’s all stuff that has to happen — these are important elements of the story that have to be represented — but you start wondering to yourself … if I, as a person tasked with telling this story recognize the formula that stands out, what does that mean for how the audience is absorbing the story?”
The commentary in reaction to the shooting also unfolded with a certain sameness, noticed Daniel Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University who has studied the discussion of gun control on cable news.
“The talking points have calcified since Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to the Connecticut elementary school where 26 people were killed in 2012. While conservative and liberal pundits once seemed boggled by the horror of a mass shooting, many now seemed to retreat to well-rehearsed stances.
“If I’m against gun control, I talk about mental illness, the tragedy of the situation, the individual characteristics of the shooter, and the need for ‘safer schools,’” Cassino said, noting that “safer schools” usually means arming teachers and security guards. “If I’m for gun control, I will call for regulating certain types of weapons and particular types of ammunition. The mentions of mental health are usually about how Republicans have gotten rid of funding for mental health treatment.”
The tone of sorrow and weariness may have been captured by NBC News anchor Lester Holt during his broadcast Tuesday night, just a few hours after the news from Texas broke. “The funerals in Buffalo aren’t even over yet and tonight, the families of elementary schoolchildren and teachers in Texas are faced with the unthinkable, burying their own,” Holt said on “NBC Nightly News.”
“We have been here before: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas,” he continued. “Now it’s Robb Elementary. Every time, every time, we pray things are going to change, that things are going to be different. We search for motives, for answers and for the way to make sure these horrible scenes can never happen again. Today’s news is confirmation we have yet to find those answers.”
Jeremy Barr and Sarah Ellison contributed to this report.