In the wake of Denver shooting, is the media repeating how it covered the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007?

In the press coverage of Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the three most persistent themes were guns, mental health, and background check. And online readers were taking cues from press coverage.

This is the finding of a research paper I did in 2007, analyzing the relationship between press coverage and online user comments. In the aftermath of the Denver shootings, it is interesting to observe whether and how the media repeat the way with which they covered the 2007 shootings.

What the press said about the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings

In summary, the three most persistent themes in the press coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings were guns, mental health, and background check.

Gun (gun laws, gun control) was the most prominent theme in the press coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. However, the best people can tell from the press coverage on guns is that there have been long-standing debates over gun control and breakthroughs in gun laws are unlikely. Pop culture (TV, movie, music, and video game) did not appear as a prominent theme in the Virginia Tech shootings reports; in fact, a document search found that the phrase of “video game” only appeared five times among all the 111 newspaper articles in this study.

Other than guns, background check and mental health were two other most prominent themes in the press coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings: the press spent much space talking about how, and why, a person with mental problems, such as Cho Seung-hui, could pass the background check system and buy a gun. The experts, officials, and the public interviewed in the press tended to agree on the need to fix the inadequacy of both the background check system and the mental health system.

There were several less prominent themes in the press coverage, such as the questioning of campus police’s response, that the Virginia Tech campus police could have done more to avoid the second shootings. Cho’s high school life—his reclusive personality, the teasing and bullying—was also mentioned when journalists were trying to figure out Cho’s motives.

How the online readers commented on the Virginia Tech shootings

As is in the press coverage, guns, mental health, and background check were also the most talked about topics in the online reader comments.

A vast array of gun-related issues were being discussed and debated among the readers. The clash of anti-gun and pro-gun advocates was quite obvious; it was by no means a one-sided opinion that was being expressed. Whereas many readers called for stricter gun control laws, many others argued for people’s right to bear firearms, saying strict guns laws will only restrict the law abiding citizens, not the criminals.

In comparison with the split opinions over gun control, the readers tended to agree more on other issues such as background check and mental health. The readers were largely blaming the background check and mental health systems for failing to stop people with mental illness from buying a gun. On a larger note, people were also concerned about mental illness, saying more resources and attention are needed to address mental health problems.

Although “high school” is not listed as a coherent theme in the press coverage, it is a persistent theme in the reader comments;  the readers were largely talking about high school safety and high school culture.

Other than the topics shared with the press coverage themes, there were some topics in the reader comments that did not appear in the press coverage as prominent themes. Such topics included video games, religion, family responsibility, racism, antidepressant drugs, etc.

Although some readers argued otherwise, many more readers blamed violent video games and other cultural products, such as violent movies, TV, and music, as being responsible for the shootings at Virginia Tech and other school shootings.

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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