Briefly: Reporting enormity

From an op-ed piece in the NYT yesterday, “No Sanctuary in the Holy City” by Patricia Williams Lessane, about the church massacre in Charleston SC (the “Holy City” of the headline) on Wednesday:

I can’t help but think of this senseless act of terror, the largest mass shooting in the country since 2013, within the historical context of the Birmingham bombing [of 1963], but also within the very current context of the increasing terror we African-Americans face on a daily basis.

The boldfaced parenthetical is intended to convey the enormity of the event, using a standard journalistic device for this purpose, citing the years since the last grievous event of its type (natural disaster, extreme weather, mass murder, whatever). But it’s not at all effective here: 2013 was only two years ago, so the Charleston massacre ends up being treated as everyday, even trivial.

The journalistic device gets its effectiveness from the assumption that events of great enormity are rare, but that assumption doesn’t always hold: random events sometimes cluster (necessarily); one event can sometimes help to trigger similar events; and some types of events can be increasing in frequency over time. In any case, monstrous events are monstrous, period, no matter how long it’s been since the last monstrous event of its type. Lessane was right to cry out against “this senseless act of terror”, but that despairing cry is undercut by an implicit reference to the fact that more than nine people (the number murdered in Charleston) were killed in an American mass shooting as recently as 2013.

(It’s possible that Lessane didn’t write that parenthetical herself. It might have been inserted by an editor who reflexively and thoughtlessly employed the journalistic device: that’s just the way these things are reported.)

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