Alarms, True and False

PUBLISHED: December 14, 2012

When tragic deaths occur under intense media scrutiny, there is often a reflexive rush to link them to serious, overarching problems. Often the news fits the broader discussion, but occasionally it does not.

Three recent incidents underscore the point. First is the unimaginable horror that engulfed Newtown, Conn., with the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook school. Second is the case of Kansas City football player Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life. The third concerned Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who committed suicide just days after she was victimized by a prank in which radio D.J.’s pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles in a call to a London hospital where Saldanha worked.

Belcher's murder-suicide led to outcry for tighter gun controls; Saldanha's death prompted rage over vicious pranking by radio and TV programs. Both issues are serious – the former far more than the latter – and in need of attention. However, these two stories are false examples of true problems, and attempts to make them into something they are not only distract from the larger issues.

In contrast, the Connecticut shootings jolt the nation into again facing the fact that automatic weapons and military-style firearms have no place in the hands of civilians. Reports indicated that as many as 100 shots were fired inside the elementary school.

The Kansas City incident, too, prompted immediate discussion about guns. The debate grew fierce after NBC’s Bob Costas delivered a commentary during a national football telecast in which he condemned the “gun culture” in America. He quoted at length from a commentary by Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports, including the assertion that, “If Jovan Belcher didn't possess a gun, he and (girlfriend) Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today."

Costas had a point about the gun culture, especially among NFL players. But he and Whitlock were off base in maintaining that the two deaths would not necessarily have occurred if Belcher didn’t own a gun. Belcher used a handgun, and no amount of background checking would have stopped him from buying it.

The unintended consequence of gun commentaries by Costas and others was that they actually provided ammunition, if you will, for the gun lobby. The Connecticut massacre, on the other hand, is an entirely legitimate case for gun lobbyists and lawmakers to meaningfully address.

The nurse’s death in London also prompted fierce protests, aimed at two radio hosts in Australia who conducted the telephone prank. Their action was described in Tweets and blogs in vile terms along with demands that they be fired. “There’s blood on your hands,” declared one anonymous Tweet that ABC News decided was worth repeating worldwide.

Telephone pranks, whether by middle-level radio D.J.’s or giggle-happy teens, are passé. What distraught observers of this sad event should really be focused on are the truly vulgar, sometimes dangerous, pranks conducted around the world and transmitted virally on YouTube.

But to use the London tragedy as the basis for protesting media pranks is to miss the point and deflects attention from the real problem of shock-video.

In his NBC commentary, Bob Costas actually made a good observation when he said we seem to need tragedies to gain perspective. But what’s the correct perspective?

We’re right to express sorrow in all three of these unfortunate cases, but it is really only the Newtown horror that legitimately requires us to demand change.

(c) Peter Funt. An earlier version of this column was distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.

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