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Sometimes Stories Fit the Stereotypes

by Sue Ellen Christian

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Several months ago, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I teach, became the latest in the awful and growing list of American cities that have experienced mass shootings. Two days after the February 20th shootings, editors at the Chicago Tribune asked me to write an opinion column about the incident in which random shootings by one man killed six people and critically wounded two others.

The shooter worked his way, literally, through the area streets as an Uber driver, conducting his spontaneous killings between rides. Murder charges have since been filed in the case, and Jason Brian Dalton, 45, of nearby Cooper Township, has been ruled competent to stand trial.

After the shooting, news outlets were looking for something fresh, something that would move the story beyond the local and put the crime, the nation’s 42nd mass shooting in 2016 alone, into national perspective. My book, Overcoming Bias, repeatedly emphasizes the importance of reporting new or underrepresented perspectives on people and events. The book cautions journalists to avoid the easy narrative, the “story that writes itself,” because such stories tend to be loaded with stereotypical characters and plot points. But, whether due to my own blind spots because the incident hit so close to home or because, simply and terribly, this is a story that plays out again and again with only slight variances, I found myself defying my own advice.

I tried three versions of the piece and all felt either too local or too expected: Can’t believe it happened here. Can’t believe how easy it is to get guns and how hard it is to keep citizens safe from them. Can’t believe things are back to normal just days after this tragedy. Even using the word “tragedy” felt cliché.

Now, three months after struggling to write that column that I never did finish (one editor called it “too Kalamazoo-centric”), I think the problem is that there isn’t much new to say about the shootings that regularly replay through U.S. cities. The details of each are different, of course, but often so much of the narrative is consistent: anti-social male, usually white; unsuspecting family, friends and neighbors; easy access to and comfort with firearms; unsuspecting victims; baffled community that then races to protect itself, too late.

Maybe some stories, this being among the worst kind, fit the stereotypes.

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