American Culture

18 school shootings this year? Not so fast, ABC

Good arguments require good facts

My job as self-appointed Gadfly Supreme, Pedant General, and Defender of Truth, Justice, and /or the American Way is simple. I generally try to put my own personal biases on the back burner (and boy howdy, do I have a few or what?) and advocate for every side of an argument to make the best damned argument they can. One might ask why I would do such a daft and self-defeating thing, but I doubt it. So I’ll share anyway.

I think informed rational discourse and debate in good faith are the cornerstone of a sound democratic system.

Take a wild guess how sound I think our not actually democratic system is. No, really, go ahead. Guess.

Just in case my thoughts on the matter aren’t as obvious as I think they should be:

Animated gif of cartoon character shooting the bird

Faced with every other damned thing we’re faced with, from defending ourselves from scary beaners [said expressly for shock and irony and to not whitewash that which should be seen  naked and ugly] instead of actual Nazis on the one hand to the STFU I disagree with you and I’m sad on the other, you’d probably think we’d have figured out how to have an honest discussion about other important things, too, like Wall Street not being the whole economy, or a regular parade of dead kids crossing our screens.

When I say “probably,” I’m showing off my general misanthropy, just in case that was missed. I don’t mean “you,” you, of course. You’re clearly one of the good ones. “One” is just so cold and impersonal and I’m kind of afraid to shake its hand because who knows where it’s been?

That said, I’m just going to assume you’ve already heard the latest installment in God Awful News That Shouldn’t Even Be a Thing and give you a link anyway. I picked NBC because at least they’re not CNN or ABC.

And ABC, I’m giving you the stink-eye in particular. That’s a link to their feedback page, by the way.

Every time we get another unscheduled Parade of Young Corpses, we find ourselves in the same political and media brouhaha. Gun control advocates vs Anti-gun control advocates. Trying to find a neutral way to frame those is dicey, because it’s so easy to both imply and elide so much with a bad turn of phrase.

Know what you won’t generally get from advocates? An unbiased perspective.

You can also expect tons, and by that, I mean a Borg cube worth of galactic fucktons, of emotional appeal, ranging from the utterly all-too-authentically sad to the viciously outraged that you’re not sad enough to the you’ll have to pry my gun out of my cold dead hands, LIBERTY! *shoots into the air with a bump stock* in front of an American flag.

It can all be valid. Could be. The emotional appeal doesn’t necessarily make an argument less valid. I just think it undermines the case one makes by putting up red flags from the git-go.

WARNING: ADVOCACY AHEAD!

No, not here.

But is that really the best way to present a case? Oh, sure, as for advocacy, it’s THE way to sell a case. One goes in cocksure (always the best way to start a thing) that obviously theirs is the best case and everyone else is evil, then one clubs the nascent thinker over the head with a baby-shaped coffin or a Bible wrapped in a flag (or vice versa). If one is lucky, the nascent thinker isn’t especially picky about thoughts and will simply agree with whatever already agrees with their biases, and is primed to hate the evil wrong people. If one is unlucky, they’ve just tried to proselytize me, and that ain’t gonna end well.

I told you I don’t like One. One is a generic little stain on the internet whose only actual function is to be the butt of any convenient “whatabout” one would trot out. You, I have faith in. I mean, have you noticed how many people apparently failed Childhood 101. Isn’t knowing “Jack and Jill did it, too! And first! And more harder!” pours gas on the upcoming punishment like one of the prerequisites of surviving age 5, or something?

One will trot out a superior sentiment as the only acceptable argument, and the beautiful thing is that once one has gone that far, facts are kind of optional.

Just in case you want to know what One looks like in reality:

Humpty Dumpty

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

At the moment, ol’ HumptyOne wants us to think that “school shootings” means whatever they want it to mean, and that makes for a very handy, very scary non-starter of an argument.

18 school shootings already this year! Gun control now!

Choose one: agree or evil

If we’re going to be counting discrete things, I’m okay with that. I like The Count as much as anyone. Maybe more.

The Count from Sesame Street

First, I need to know what we’re counting. “School shootings,” One says.

“Really?” I ask.

I want to know what “school shootings” signifies. Is a pillow fight a school shooting? Clearly not. So we know that it’s possible for a “school shooting” to not be some kinds of things. There must be a core notion of “school shooting-ness” that an event must exhibit in order to truly be a “school shooting.”

As presented by an advocate, “school shooting” is what one should call a loaded phrase. In a neutral context, the phrase doesn’t have to be loaded. But as used in advocacy, you betcha it is. It’s used to elicit fear and loathing, or intense grief and anxiety over the horrible state of all the horrible things. These are powerful emotional reactions One intends to engage for maximum advocacy reception before a true thought can emerge.

Since we’re dealing in bias, finding out what is signified is paramount if one is to judge aright whether they are on the receiving end of a rational argument or a cause-thumping.

An Aside: You know what I hate about spotting a problem earlier in the day when I can’t write about it? By the time I get to it, people have started cleaning up their act. On the bright side, they’re not very good at it. I know for sure that earlier in the day I spotted an ABC headline that used “school shootings” as its phrasing. Something is different. Luckily, whoever is responsible for finessing their rubber stamped prevarication doesn’t know how to game Google.

Screen shot of Google search results

Google search says: There have already been 18 school shootings in the US … – ABC News

When you click that link, you get this, instead:

Screenshot of ABC News

ABC headline begs to differ: Advocacy group highlights 18 cases of gunfire at US schools so far this year

One of these things ain’t like the other.

I wish I could rely on memory when I’m rushed on break at the day job. Did they change one headline for another? I honestly cannot swear to that. But I can see this with my own two eyes and it’s still stinking up Denmark.

Let’s take ABC graf by graf, shall we?

But first, notice the date/time stamp:

Screenshot of ABC News

Does that strike One as what I saw at lunch when it would have been closer to 2:34 PM ET?

I wish I could point out the specific bait and switch, but this is looking to me like exactly the kind of shoddy journalistic practice that gets the #fakenews crowd singing soprano.

There have been 18 at schools in the first 45 days of 2018, according to a nonprofit group.

It’s almost like ABC wants to be viciously mocked before being torn a new one for deceptive “journalism.” There have been 18 what at schools? That sort of self-referential line might be clever when a blogger like me does it, but when editors are over there tinkering with the right wording to slink out of responsibility, I think it just covers for errors, omissions, and outright distortions. Is it 18 school shootings, as per what ABC originally typed into the field that Google picked up for the search results? Even in their SEO blurb meta-data, they start walking back what words even mean.

Or is it 18 cases of gunfire at US schools?

Or is it just 18 cases of gunfire that happen to involve a school in the vicinity?

I guess that all depends on what the meaning of at at.

Star Wars AT-AT Walker

I’m coming for your bullshit, ABC. Yes, in my literal AT-AT walker.

Um, at is. Thanks, Bill!

Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, had recorded 17 school shootings on their website prior to Wednesday afternoon’s shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Apparently, if a biased advocacy group (I’m being redundant) trots out a deceptive emotional appeal, this is newsworthy. Or, maybe if ABC did indeed go monkeying around with their original language, maybe this is just a subtle, “it’s not our fault, we believed what we were told by advocacy PR and rubberstamped it, because journalism!”

Everytown defines a school shooting as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds, as documented by the press and, when necessary, confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement or school officials,” according to its website.

Spoiler: by the time we get to Politifact, we should already be wondering why we care how Everytown moves the goalposts in anything except a scathing criticism of them doing just that.

We already concluded that pillow fights aren’t “school shootings.” If you didn’t, ask your doctor if reality is right for you.

As for the way Everytown arbitrarily and capriciously defines the phrase, I refuse to accept their asserted definition, exactly on the grounds that such a definition is so broad as to render the phrase nearly meaningless for the purposes of rational public discourse sans emotional appeal.

Their statistic has come into question by some new organizations including The Washington Post, which say that the number has been “inflated” by including shootings and gunfire on school grounds that, for instance, did not include attacks on students.

Here’s that WashPo article ABC links to:

Screenshot of Washington Post headline

Note the date/time, “February 15 at 3:06 PM.

In other words, after WashPo debunks the specious Everytown claim, ABC reports that it was debunked, but not in so many words, and what they do say soft-pedals to the point of absurdity. Please tell me that

Their statistic has come into question

is the same as

No, there haven’t been 18 school shootings in 2018. That number is flat wrong.

Please. I could use some schadenfreude right now.

PolitiFact is late to the game at 5:49 PM, and even then they chose to rate the claim as merely Mostly Wrong. I think Pants on Fire is more apt, but that’s one of the reasons I don’t take PolitiFact at face value. They frequently err in their ratings in favor of some mendacious bullshit artist.

And theirs is still a better love story than Twilight, still far, far stronger than “statistic has come into question.” Mostly false is “coming into question?” Get bent, ABC.

Here’s an idea for reportage. Take the available debunking information that’s simply waved away as merely questioning, summarize it out of context, and call it good:

Wednesday’s shooting marks the first of the year in Florida. There were three shootings at different schools in Texas, two in different California schools and two in different Michigan schools, according to Everytown’s data. There are 10 other states that had at least one shooting.

Oh, good, ABC listens to me by reading my future thoughts.

In eight of the 17 school shootings recorded by Everytown prior to Wednesday, a gun was fired but no one was injured.

Two of the shootings were classified as being attempted or completed suicides with no intent to injure another person.

I’m not sure if that counts as “calling into question,” so I’m not giving ABC bonus points for keeping this story up as is. All I see here is a desperate move to keep the misdirection from Everytown at least vaguely relevant enough to keep from feeling forced into a retraction.

The Gun Violence Archive, which tracks reports of mass shootings — defined as incidents where four or more people are shot, not including the shooter — reports there have been 30 mass shooting incidents so far in 2018, including today’s in Florida.

ABC is clearly aware that there are ways to define things and other ways to define things. But there’s Everytown, still front and center as of this writing.

Schools have been some of the deadliest sites for shootings in the past.

Well, ABC, is it shootings, school shootings, or mass shootings you’re talking about? You’ve been so fast and free with word usage that it’s hard to keep track.

And are these little bits of “context” really essential to impartial reportage on a current event? I have to ask, because usually when media provides “context,” I call it framing a narrative, and that’s where they tread mighty close to advocacy, which, pro-tip, is not impartial journalism.

The third deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was at Virginia Tech University in 2007, when 32 people were killed, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which is tied for the fourth-highest casualty shooting, led to 26 deaths.

This is relevant to the current event how, if not to add a layer of emotional appeal? And are we to draw an equivalence between the tragic deaths of college students and the tragic deaths of children and the tragic deaths of youth? Tragedy is tragic, but those groups, as presented, become a meaningless mishmash of emotional appeal.

And what about the deadliest and next deadliest? If ABC is going to toss out ghoulish cadaver trivia, don’t those count?

Broward County Public Schools superintendent Robert Runcie said that there were “numerous” fatalities in Wednesday’s shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School.

Finally! A relevant fact that stands on its own. By now, though, I have to take even that on faith if I’m relying on ABC.

According to Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent and current ABC News consultant, most school shootings last for about five minutes or less.

Fewer, ABC. Fewer. ABC doesn’t know how long this particular mass shooting at a school in a way that’s relevant to being at a school lasted, so here’s some trivia, just to make sure you feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

It takes much longer to clear the scene, however, since responding law enforcement officers need to methodically go through, room by room, to both secure and de-arm the shooter and to help students and faculty at the school, Garrett explained.

You don’t say! Tell me it isn’t so, ABC!

Former New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly said that bullying could be a possible factor in today’s shooting, though the motive has not been confirmed.

“We’ve seen it in so many cases,” said Kelly, who is now an ABC News consultant.

“We don’t know for sure but I’m pretty sure there’s an element of that here,” he said, noting that the bullying could be “real or perceived.”

“Hi, I have no idea what the hell happened in Florida, so here’s some speculation without a citation to data,” says a named source with an ex-title ABC keeps on file. Does he have expertise? I sure as hell hope so, for New York’s sake (in the past). Does that make the speculation any more relevant?

You have no idea how relieved I am that ABC finally ran out of bullshit for the article. That was it.

ABC truly ought to be embarrassed that the first word I had of ABC’s fact-challenged reporting was by way of Ben Shapiro’s very conservative (depending on how one defines conservative) Daily Wire, dateline friggin’ yesterday.

ABC should be embarrassed that the first fact-check I found wasn’t even one of the big guys who claim (with varying degrees of credibility) impartiality. It was the conservative Washington Examiner at 11:26 AM by their dateline.

Now if you want to really see people making shit up as they go along and calling it news, and getting debunked, and others still calling it news, look into the murderer du jour’s ties to white supremacy.

If the truth is in that mix, caveat emptor. Dig for the evidence before you buy it hook, line, and sinker. Maybe it’s there. I can’t fact-check every damned thing. But if you run with that before finding something that counts as evidence, you’re part of the problem.

I’m okay with saying that. Why? Because I’m part of the problem. Know what sucks more than ABC’s #fakenews (thanks for the hashtag, Russia)? Getting punked by ABC when taking a claim to which they lent credence at face value. This whole article is nearly three thousand words of eating bitter, bitter crow. That’ll learn me. And it should learn you, too.

Know what makes me better than ABC?

This retraction of a thing written elsewhere in an informal setting.

As for my delicate feelings at getting punked by a “trusted” news source?

Pulp Fiction meme quoting Ezekiel 25:17

For my beloved gun control advocates, please make good arguments, valid arguments, sound arguments. And you, too, my beloved anti-gun control advocates.

A sound democratic system demands no less. It’s incumbent on us to deliver. We need to be better than this, because if we aren’t, I’m not sure what’s worth fighting for.

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