By Sarah Ruiz-Grossman
As the nation reels from the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, some people have noticed a double standard in how the media has portrayed 64-year-old Stephen Paddock versus other mass shooters.
Paddock shot into a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas on Sunday, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500 before authorities found him dead in his hotel room with a cache of weapons.
As the news broke, major outlets across the country wrote headlines that humanized Paddock, pointing out that he was a country music fan, for example. They also portrayed his violent act as an anomaly, labeling him a “lone wolf” who “doesn’t fit [the] mass shooter profile” rather than a part of a systemic problem of violence by white men in this country.
Past mass shooters who were nonwhite or Muslim have been depicted quite differently― and so have people of color who were victims of gun violence.
“There’s a clear difference in the way this kind of incident is treated and the way it would be treated if it were actually associated with Islam or Muslims,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost. “It would be instantly called an act of domestic or even international terrorism; it wouldn’t be individualized, but collectivized to the entire Muslim community or faith of Islam.”
Here are some ways white shooters are privileged in the media:
White killers are often humanized.
Obituary of a white terrorist:
"He was a quiet man. He liked to gamble, and enjoyed country music. Oh and he also murdered 50+ people." pic.twitter.com/Pe16EUA11S
— Michael Swander (@MichaelSwander) October 2, 2017
The #lasvegas shooter lived a "quiet life" & enjoyed "country music". Can you imagine a Muslim shooter being so quickly humanized like this?
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) October 2, 2017
When an unarmed Black person gets killed, the 1st thing we learn are her/his vices. White guy slaughters people…Gosh, what did he enjoy? pic.twitter.com/zWf0hwV6oC
— jesse Williams. (@iJesseWilliams) October 2, 2017
Less than 12 hours after Paddock shot and killed dozens of people, a headline from The Washington Post focused on the fact that he “liked to gamble, listened to country music, lived quiet retired life.”
People on Twitter were quick to point out that nonwhite and Muslim perpetrators of violence don’t often get such humanizing profiles after the fact.
By contrast, some media coverage of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in police custody in 2015, focused on her “prior run-ins with the law.”
And after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, was shot by police in 2014, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown spread on social media as people of color wondered how the media would depict them if they were killed.
What’s more, after Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, at least one headline stated that Paddock “doesn’t fit [the] mass shooter profile,” noting his lack of a known criminal record.
Actually, Paddock precisely fits that profile. Most mass shooters and domestic terrorists in this country have been white, multiple studies show.
I’m sorry, was he not a white man with a shit ton of guns? Because that is the profile. https://t.co/vksR0TBBF5
— Kate Harding (@KateHarding) October 2, 2017
“There is nothing wrong with including human details in reporting, but when we choose to do it is telling,” Farai Chideya, a longtime journalist who has been reporting on white extremism for more than 25 years, told HuffPost in an email.
“In many cases when there is a white mass-shooter or domestic terrorist, we get personal details about them, like the reports that the Las Vegas shooter was a country music fan,” she added. “But how often do we learn personal details about terrorists and mass killers, or even street criminals in the US, when they are not white? Who gets humanized in news coverage is important ― and telling.”
White killers are often described as “lone wolves” with mental health issues.
Just hours after the mass shooting in Vegas, the media was calling Paddock a “lone wolf.” Yet there are clear disparities in who receives this label: After Muslim people commit acts of violence, critics often point to Islam as the root of the problem, and when black people are involved in shootings, they point to the myth of ”black-on-black crime.”
When white people commit mass violence, however, there is often an emphasis on the fact they were acting alone. The implicit assumption is that they are in no way responsible for representing the larger demographic group they belong to. What’s more, the response to the Las Vegas shooter follows another familiar pattern: White violence is often explained away as a mental health issue.
news: someone did a violent thing
me: Lord I hope they weren't black
news: shooter was a lone wolf
me: oh so they were white
— Brokey S. Pumpkins (@brokeymcpoverty) October 2, 2017
Trump reportedly already called the Las Vegas shooter “demented,” the Las Vegas mayor called him a “crazed lunatic,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) asked for mental health reform in response to the attack.
While some perpetrators of terror attacks indeed had histories of mental illness, the problem with consistently portraying white perpetrators as mentally ill is not only that it excuses them to some extent for their actions, but also that it prevents the public from calling for more appropriate policy solutions to the wider, systemic problem of white men and gun violence.
Muslim shooter: whole religion guilty
Black shooter: whole race guilty
White shooters: lone wolf. Give him a hug
— #Abdul (@HashtagAbdul) October 3, 2017
White killers are almost never labeled as terrorists.
Though shooting into a crowd of thousands certainly terrorized those who were present, the Las Vegas shooter has not been officially labeled a terrorist.
When it comes to mass violence by white people, news outlets have repeatedly been criticized for their slowness to label attacks by white perpetrators as “terrorism,” while they’re more likely to use the label when attackers are perceived as nonwhite ― and specifically, Muslim.
Part of the problem is that officially labeling a violent event is complicated. For officials to label an act as terrorism, the perpetrator has to be motivated by political or ideological beliefs.
But motive isn’t always easy to determine ― and even when it seems clear, the results aren’t always as expected: Many people condemned the government for not labeling Dylann Roof a terrorist after he killed nine black people in a Charleston church in 2015, even though he said he was there “to shoot black people,” according to witnesses.
Las Vegas police say they are still working to find a motive in Sunday’s mass shooting, and Sheriff Joe Lombardo stated at a Monday news briefing that the shooter could just be “a distraught person just intending to cause mass casualties.” But NPR reports that Undersheriff Kevin McMahill described the shooting as an act of “domestic terrorism.”
Meanwhile, people on Twitter have called for Paddock to be labeled a terrorist.
White killers often get a pass from the president.
President Donald Trump responded to Sunday’s attack by calling it an “act of pure evil” and tweeted out his “warmest condolences” to the victims and families.
But the response pales in comparison to Trump’s past statements about violence committed by people who appear to be Muslim.
For instance, after the fatal shooting of a policeman in Paris in April, for which the self-described Islamic State claimed responsibility, Trump tweeted that the “people of France will not take much more of this.” And after a truck attack and stabbing in London in June that was also claimed by ISIS, Trump condemned it and called on courts to reinstate a travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries.
Yet after Sunday’s attack on his own soil, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, Trump did not call for any action or policy changes to prevent such attacks in the future.
“I can guarantee you, President Trump would have reacted differently ― it would have been night and day ― if there was some association with Islam,” CAIR’s Hooper told HuffPost. “He would have called it terrorism, there would have been calls for extreme, extreme vetting.”
As the seemingly endless cycle of mass shootings in the U.S. goes on ― Sunday’s attack was the 273rd this year ― some people are calling for the country to reject the all-too-common response when white men commit deadly attacks: extending thoughts and prayers, but taking no real action.