How Narrative is Shaping Our Thought Surrounding Active Shooters

Cristy Miles, MPH, MBA
November 10, 2022

According to the Gun Violence Archive, since the beginning of 2022, there have been over 230 mass shootings in America. The definition of a mass shooting is in which four or more people were shot and killed (not including the attacker) in a single incident. It is one of the most devastating events in American history. Not because it sparks conversations surrounding gun control and mental health, but the lives that are lost not only in the shooting but in the narrative as well.

In content research, a crucial aspect of identifying the information we plan to distribute is in ensuring we combat our own biases. Bias is disproportionate weight in favor of or against an idea or thing, usually in a way that is close-minded, prejudicial, or unfair. When reading about events in American history, there are ways to give information in a factual way but what is more commonly seen, is the push for certain motifs and motives at the forefront.

The idolization and profiling of shooters are often the mainstays after a tragic incident because as humans, we are wired to ask “why” someone would do something so heinous. Often in narration after big catastrophic events such as an active shooting, we profile the shooter, and ask the main question, “why did they do it?” Far too often, I know what the active shooter had for breakfast and their family upbringing but have no clue as to how the victims of Columbine are doing 20 years later and the aftermath of effects this has on daily living. “Why” is a powerful question that allows us to seek answers and gain control when frightening events happen. If we understand causality, perhaps, we can prevent it in the future?

It then begs the question, if we can have a narrative bias as content consumers, can we have an unconscious bias in our language? What about the way we use certain terms and phrases? Do we know the history of those phrases? Where did they come from and why has our verbiage not evolved to use more suitable terms?

One of the hazards we discuss in detail is suicide. Why do we use the term “committed suicide”? It stems from an era when suicide was considered a sin or a crime in the same way, a person would say, “committed murder”. Effective and empathetic messaging would instead state suicide in the same way we say, “died of cancer”. In this instance, you are not blaming the individual but merely stating the actual act itself. This takes the bias out of certain stereotypes surrounding suicide.

The danger in implicit bias is that it is a predictor of how we will behave in certain situations. These implicit biases show up in how we are taught through school, family members, and the people that surround us. The reason we have this implicit bias is that we use it in the absence of complete information, and it allows us to categorize the vast amount of content we consume on a daily basis. Knowing and realizing those harmful effects can allow us to prevent explicit targeting and the use of crass, outdated language. Admittedly, it is hard to look introspectively because of the discomfort surrounding what we feel we know. However, while it may be uncomfortable, it is important to feel those feelings and acknowledge them. If we can sit in our discomfort, we can do the work to move forward. You cannot move forward and improve if you are not aware of what you should work towards.

When diving deep into hazards and how we use the language that surrounds them, it is important to ensure that we are constantly doing the work to become less biased in our approach. The power of language can alter the viewpoint of someone who has dealt with suicide in the same way that it can inform the media attention surrounding active shooters. Being open and receptive to change in phrasing or researching the meaning and basis for terminology typically used can be empowering and meaningful. Bias surrounds us in all aspects of life, however, constantly aiming to do the work to acknowledge and understand the meaning behind those biases can be monumental in creating a safe and equitable world in content creation.

Cristy Miles, MPH, MBA is a Hazard Research and Content Creator at HazAdapt with a speciality expertise in chronic illnesses, prevention, healthcare management, community health, and participatory research. Master's Degree focused in global health leadership and healthcare administration.