Posted: Jun 10, 2014 8:45 AM
Its been a busy — and disturbing — news season, where tragedies have filled clips and headlines. But what follows each one has become an almost predictable pattern — we weep, we demand change, we go on with our lives. Are we becoming desensitized to violence?
Photo credit: David McNew / Stringer/ Getty Images News

"The shock value seems to be gone." This headline streamed through my Twitter feed the other day and I found myself nodding and scrolling rather than clicking and sharing. But the words stuck with me. Its been a busy news month — the Santa Barbara shootings, the 12-year-old stabbing, the SPU killing — and I'm wondering if our incessant headline hopping is symptomatic of the scariest emotion there is: desensitization.

Click-worthy violence

The killing spree in Santa Barbara happened on May 23, 2014. Our nation followed the story closely, wept for humanity, read every headline we could get our eyes — or our keyboards — on. Less than two weeks later, I caught this headline: Father Of UCSB Shooting Victim: 'That's A Hole In My Life That I Can Never Fill.' The article included an interview with one of the victim's fathers, Richard Martinez. His picture had been prominent the first week after the shootings — he was outspoken and recognizable — and the article was in a top spot on the Huffington Post. And yet, when I clicked over it had about two dozen Facebook "Likes" (today it has 170 Likes).

In comparison, articles from the day of the tragedy and the several days that followed have Likes in the 1000s — 12k to 16k. So what happened there? Were those first articles better written? Did the authors have more reach? Were they published in better slots to optimize viewing and sharing? Or does this go back to the headline I saw in my Twitter stream: "The shock value seems to be gone."

Put a little less feeling into it

The diminished emotional response to something negative

"Rendered insensitive" isn't exactly the phrase I would choose for what I want our society to feel about violence. But desensitized is what we seem to have become. In psychology, desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional response to something negative. The reasons behind desensitization are key: repeated exposure and when the actions associated with the response prove irrelevant or unnecessary. Dr. Jeanette Raymond is a licensed clinical psychologist at a private practice in Los Angeles who specializes in relationships and mind-body wellness. Raymond explains, "Desensitization is... a big factor. When we see scenes of horror, massacre [and] natural or man-made tragedies, the voice of the media is matter-of-fact, often making the viewer less connected. The emotion is removed and repetitive sound bites, film and pictures divest the event from human empathy and call to action."

In the last decade, we've seen so much tragedy cross our screens and our gut reactions are visceral. I wonder if it's that second part of desensitization — when our deeply emotional responses don't yield change — that leads to the (seemingly) "just the way it is" apathy in the long term.

Bad news

"Bad parenting and firearms... have been around for many years. So what's different about the present?" A writer posited about the Littleton, Colorado, shootings in an article on The Tech in 1999. And a full 14 years later one of the NPR Barbershop guys said, "So I don't know if we're desensitized or if we're just suffering from combat fatigue because I've got some bad news — there's going to be another mass shooting this year and then another one after that. We know that from statistics."

These statistics — and the acceptance of their inevitability — are devastating, but not shocking. As a society, we've learned to move on. We don't necessarily know the ins and outs of how to do this, so Raymond says we look to our political leaders for cues on how to react. She explains, "When our representatives in the political power houses don't do anything but make political sound noises, they're giving a message that it's not important. We imbue our "rulers" with the ability to think and act on our behalf, so when they don't [take action], we take it as a read that it's not important enough and that we're not bad or insensitive if we follow suit."

In our society's tech-obsessed ways, our click-throughs and shares of articles reveal where our focus and interests lie. And, in this way, "follow suit" is exactly what we currently do post-tragedies.

Short shelf lives

Like a bad accident that I can't turn away from, these viewing patterns fascinate me. So I asked Val Curtis, editor-in-chief of BonBon Break, an online magazine for women featuring the best of the web, about the viewing patterns she's observed following tragedies. What she shared is fascinating. Curtis says, "When Sandy Hook and the East Coast storms happened, we shared articles from our contributors on the topics and our readers read their stories... We decided to take the personal perspective of familiar voices to our readers when it seems like a natural fit, otherwise it's business as usual... [And] we definitely saw dips in our traffic during both of those news items... People were glued to news sites trying to understand the horror of Sandy Hook and to see what would happen next during the storm."

Just a year later, though, things look a little different. Curtis says, "Our traffic went down by at least 50 percent for both [Sandy Hook and the East Coast storms] and it was almost immediate... Now we don't feel it. Santa Barbara is a good example and now SPU. We have been on a steady upward trajectory the last two weeks."

Curtis distills the situation to this, "I think readers tend to go to the next big story. It seems whatever the big buzz is today, it is gone within a week."

Long-term effects

The post-tragedy reaction pattern is predictable and stems, partly, from how quickly the public wants — and can receive — information about current events. Liz Jostes, online marketing consultant and co-founder of Eli Rose Social Media, LLC, explains, "Social media and the desire by media sources to be the first to report breaking news has drastically reduced the amount of time it takes for news to spread throughout the country and even worldwide. This has also created the expectation from the general public that, as details emerge, we'll all be in the know almost instantly."

We give up on tragedies and the people in them... because the lack of action by politicians, and little or no long-term coverage by main media sources gives a tacit message that we are not like those suffering the tragedies.

At the very same time, has our expectation become that after news breaks about tragedy absolutely nothing happens to fix its root problem? Are Americans becoming complacent that gun violence and mass shootings are just a part of living in the U.S.? Raymond says, "We give up on tragedies and the people in them... because the lack of action by politicians, and little or no long-term coverage by main media sources gives a tacit message that we are not like those suffering the tragedies. They disrupt the possibility of identifying, empathizing and then taking action. So traction is lost, the media moves on and the window closes on creating change."

Be the change you want to see

I don't have a solution to desensitization. But I do believe in the power of telling and listening to stories. Opening the conversation, taking a look at the headlines — and action — we're drawn to might make us more aware of, and sensitive to, tragedy. Raymond says, "Politicians and the media know that to arouse us they have to appeal to our emotions — fear, anger and a sense of uniting against a real, imaginary or manufactured foe. So if stories about tragedies don't pull on these particular emotional strings, the events just lose any power to activate our need to take action." Perhaps the solution is that we all need to allow (force?) ourselves to feel just a little bit more.

Share with us!^ Do you think we've become desensitized to violence? What can we do about it?

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