Changing Perspectives: Television and the Virginia Tech Tragedy

It happens with any tragedy. As the news media begins to cover the story 24/7, as its true ramifications and impact begin to take hold on our minds, it fundamentally changes our perspective. Things which were once innocuous, things which were once seemingly harmless, take on new meanings. And really, I think it’s only human nature; as human beings, we are affected by tragedies which are so relatable, which could happen to anyone. What happened at Virginia Tech is something relatable for me: as an RA who sees people in residence who have issue with anger, issues with violence, I can’t help but become hypothetical. I can’t help but think about these realities in my own life, and thus it’s also impossible to ignore connections between the tragedy at Virginia Tech and the television we watch. As a reflection of our lives, and in many ways an extension of our societal values, television is going to provide unintended context to a tragic event.

The shootings have already resulted in a network reaction from FOX in regards to this week’s episode of ‘Bones,’ which had been about a college student who had been murdered and buried a set of bleachers. And, although I do not believe anything has been made official, there has been some reaction to this weekend’s Saturday Night Live Digital Short, “The Shooting.” I think that the short certainly takes a somewhat different turn when you consider it in the light of the shootings, and NBC agrees. Although they weren’t too quick to take down the short when it aired (NBC was apparently unable to legally clear the song for use on YouTube, but didn’t want to kill the hype), NBC is now making legal claims about anyone posting the video on YouTube themselves.

My opinion on these two reactions is that I think they are both for the best, and both justified, and yet I think it’s important to avoid the types of reactions seen on the Saturday Night Live message boards. This one, an example of the sentiment, in particular is a problem [Highlights are mine]:

“I created an account and I am commenting here on this site for one reason only — to STRONGLY agree [the first poster]. I’m a longterm SNL fan, and I can certainly take a joke, but SNL needs to realize that they are absolutely no different than the Quinten Tarrintino’s of the world, violent video game producers, and all the media outlets that indirectly promote this behavior by showing people shooting other people on TV or on computers. SNL — you all have a responsibility to society as well. Some jokes don’t need to be said, and skits don’t need to be shown. You didn’t cause this event, but it’s shows like yours that slowly make these “nut cases” lose their sensitivity and become enamored with this kind of behavior — and ultimately do it. SNL and NBC — you are partly responsible.

I think we need to draw a major line in the sand in regards to responsibility for the event and responsibility to the public. What SNL did was create a comedy sketch that made light of violence…in order to satirize the dramatization of violence on other television shows. In the end, the sketch was written and presented as comedy. It cannot, in any way, be retroactively declared as a glorification of violence simply because of this terrible event. SNL and NBC are not responsible for anything other than poor timing, and that was out of their control.

Look at Bones, which is dealing with a problem of an episode that has been filmed and completed and yet can’t possibly air considering its subject matter. They are not at fault for producing an episode which featured a college student being killed considering that we’re talking about a forensics procedural drama. We live in a television environment where every CSI, every Law and Order, every Criminal Minds or NCIS, are all dealing with death on a regular basis. I would hate to have the job that those writers have, planning out how they’re going to create a murder for these people to solve every week. And yet, can we hold them responsible for doing their jobs? Can we hold the shows responsible when they have some of the highest ratings on TV? Can we hold us responsible, then, for consuming and demanding this type of programming?

This is the problem with attempting to find blame within the mass media, specifically within television or video games. Consumption of television, of video games, is far too subjective to even consider its effects without opening up a Pandora’s box that is simply impossible to close cleanly. It’s an easy out, a nice story for the media, and yet I don’t think it actually has enough true relevance to consider as an issue of responsibility. What SNL presented, what Bones was planning to present, was a reality of what we as viewers consume, wish to consume, and find funny or dramatic on a regular basis.

FOX and NBC made the right call removing these from air/YouTube, as it is a sign of their own remorse and sensitivity towards these events. However, I want to make it very clear that no one should be blaming any of the parties involved for anything. So, I can only hope that I don’t see a nationwide boycott of SNL, or Shia LaBeouf, or Andy Samberg, or David Boreanaz. This tragedy is not an issue of blame, no matter how much the media wants to find a catchy byline to scroll on the bottom of the screen to sum everything up. The actions of that student were actions that were personal, emotional, contextual, and can never be boiled down to any show, any societal construct. The micro, in this case, is where you begin, not with the macro mass media element of things.


Filed under Bones, FOX, NBC, Saturday Night Live

4 responses to “Changing Perspectives: Television and the Virginia Tech Tragedy

  1. Sarah

    I have to say I disagree. I doubt there were school shootings before television — though there were guns, and school. Most troubled people kill themselves. Troubled people who want to get on the news 24/7 for 5 weeks and on the cover of every paper and newspaper in the country? They take people with them.

    Even the words they use, “biggest”, “bloodiest”, “worst” massacre ever, they all glorify the killings.

    Even myself, I don’t know any of the victims names of the Columbine attacks, but I do know the killers. The news media’s attention to the wrong aspects of these attacks, along with their absolute over-coverage, contributed to the killing at VT, there is no question in my mind.

  2. Pingback: “The Shooting”: Who’s laughing now? | backward five

  3. Sarah, I think that the media’s role isn’t nearly that simple. The media has a number of different ways in which they could be operating (I’m studying for my mass media exam, this is going to get scholarly – I’m sorry).

    Under a Traditional model, they present the facts and only the facts. [In this case, this would be who was killed, what happened, the basics and the basics only]

    Under a democratic model they let people know the important questions this raises for the future of democracy.[In this case: How did they let this happen, Could this happen at your child’s school, etc.]

    Under an Audience-Centered model, you present what the people most want to see. [In this case, they want to see cell phone video, they want to see grainy creepy photos of the attacker, they want testimonials.]

    Under a Deconstructionist model, you present something which tears down the bureaucracy and undermines regimes. [This would be indicting the school for not shutting down classes, basically]

    Under a Social Responsibility model, you do what is most socially responsible.

    This last one is what interests me, because what exactly IS socially responsible in this instance? Should they be featuring the killer, in an attempt to psychologically evaluate and provide answers for a public hungry for them? Should the audience be hungry for those answers, as opposed to mournful of those lost? What is ‘social responsibility’? It’s such a bullshit term, in so many ways, and yet it’s a important principle in the presentation of news stories.

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