Sensationalism of a particular incident, often a tragedy such as the Sandy Hook shooting, is not unusual.
According to Psychology Professor Bart Abplanalp, when tragedy occurs, we are likely to overreact. The main example of this phenomenon is displayed by the media, he said. As soon as the public attention focuses on an event, the media follows, said Abplanalp.Often, because of emotional reactions, what is reported by major media outlets often quickly becomes the majority opinion and absolute truth of incident gets pushed aside, he said.
“After any major event like this occurs you’re gonna have tons of them reported on because public attention is brought on it,” said Abplanalp.
“We influence our media outlets, our media outlets influence us. We emulate what we see,” said English and Mass Media Professor Patrick Taggesell. He also explained that success in the media is dependent on public interest, which consequently demands controversy.
A characteristic of the Sandy Hook shooting that has been gaining a lot of interest is the number of child deaths that resulted.
Abplanalp said the public’s response focuses on what he called “America’s sense of justice,” or the idea that bad things happen to people who deserve it. Though he said this is a flawed concept, it is extraordinarily popular because it allows people to feel safe after an incident, he said.
“There aren’t a lot of adult deaths on the news, unless it’s a huge massacre or something. It’s a much bigger deal when a child dies,” said Madison Wright. When children are harmed, however, the entire notion is lost, Abplanalp said.
“I dislike the idea of someone dying before they can make a conscious choice,” said Taggesell. Children are thought of as completely innocent, and their murders seem utterly obscene to the public, Abplanalp said.
Another dangerous reaction that can be motivated by sensationalism is “copycat incidents.”
“Copycats tend to be attention seekers more than anything else,” said Abplanalp. The more violent or conspicuous an incident, the more attention it receives, he said. This attention prompts dangerous reactions, in some cases, he said.
The most negative side effect of the sensationalism of violent occurrences results when typically stigmatized people, such as the mentally ill, are somehow involved, Abplanalp said. People tend to focus on that factor rather than the real issue, because they do not completely understand mental illness, he said.
Abplanalp said that some people, true psychopaths, may just have limbic systems that are inclined to be neurologically aroused by atypical things, such as causing violence or mayhem.
This is not usually the case though, most perpetrators are only looking to “create a name for themselves,” he said.
Another dangerous possibility is that sensationalism of situations like the Sandy Hook shooting could lead to more people arming themselves with deadly weapons, Abplanalp said.
According to Abplanalp, the availability of guns in this country is a major factor in the astonishing amount of violent acts.
“If you have access to weapons, you’re much more likely to harm people. You prevent it by limiting access to it, not by putting a guard in every school,” he said.
Taggesell said that issues surrounding gun control involve various, contradicting agendas that develop as the result of human nature and are not inherently bad.
Our nation’s collective perspective on this issue is represented with the American ideal that firearms bring security, Abplanalp said. However, humanity’s habit of ignoring the consequences of this ideal has left the problem thoroughly under addressed, he said.