For better and for worse, society today is driven by sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately. The latest example: the Colorado shooting rampage.
As everyone from politicians to parents of slain children search for answers in the Colorado shooting, many observers say the high-profile event is just the latest example of both the progress and problems in dealing with violent, media-driven events.
We live in a society driven by increasingly sophisticated and powerful information technology that allows us to know details about everything virtually immediately, says UCLA assistant professor and psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim, adding, “and this has a good and a bad side.”
Cell phone video clips from the Aurora movie theater provided a nearly instantaneous realtime window into events as they unfolded. Television coverage has blanketed everything from Monday’s court appearance by shooting suspect James Holmes to the personal stories of the victims and survivors.
The positive side of such immediate, up-close contact, he says, “is that we collectively can respond as a society, we can send money and relief and bring people in to help because we can relate right away.”
In the case of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who was found to have ignored warnings about child sexual abuse, he says, “we are very uncomfortable with the details of those victims’ lives. It’s one of the last taboos with a significant stigma attached to it, and we don’t want to know the details of its impact or what actually happened.”
As a result, he points out how much the coverage was geared toward the penalties imposed on the university and the impact they will have on the school and its football team. Innocent bystanders, such as Penn State students, in the scandal may suffer, he notes, “but they are not the real victims in that case.”
But the sort of psychological insight that can be provided in a swiftly moving media environment is limited, says Mindy Utay, a former lawyer who is now a psychotherapist and blogger for the Huffington Post.
“Unfortunately,” she says via e-mail, “pop-psychology has given most Americans a superficial and often inaccurate idea of human emotions and motivations.”
She says Americans in general are much more sympathetic to the idea of mental illness than they were even a decade ago -especially now that mood disorders such as depression, postpartum depression and bipolar disorder are “out of the closet” – but they tend to view violence in simplistic terms.
“The shooter was bullied [Columbine] or the shooter flunked out of his Ph.D. program and felt like a loser [Aurora]. There’s a lot of pop-psychology input that shapes how Americans view violence- and much of it is misguided,” she adds.
Greater understanding does not mean all victims are equal, points out San Diego psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, who specializes in borderline personality disorders. Even in the cases where the genuine suffering of victims is highlighted, mainstream media focus on what will drive ratings.