The Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Research and Learning kicked off its first campus event Thursday, September 19, with powerful commentary on how the news media covers gun violence from several prominent panelists, including the aunt of Columbine victim Isaiah Shoels.
“The media is going to carry it any way they want to,” said Betty Shoels, whose nephew was the only African-American victim in the 1999 school massacre. “They’re going to victimize the victims and glorify the assailant. That’s what’s happening now with all these tragedies. They [mass murderers] seek affection and attention and the media gives it to them, so they continue to kill.”
Shoel’s comments came during the panel discussion The Violence Divide: Race and Class Disparities in the Media’s Response to Gun Violence at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
“Part of what this evening is all about is giving a voice to the forgotten stories and forgotten angles,” said Kelly Bates, founding director of the Elma Lewis Center, who moderated the discussion.
Shoels and co-panelist Taisha Akins, an African-American from Boston who became an activist after her son was lost to gun violence, both felt they endured poor treatment by the media when covering their loved one’s deaths.
“I definitely feel that if you’re black, you are treated different than if you were in the white community,” Akins said. “The way they labeled and describe these kids like they did my son, saying he was ‘well known to police,’ I felt like that was discouraging people who had answers [to come forward to police.]”
Panelist Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, who helped launch a gun buy-back program in Boston in the early 1990s after losing loved ones to violence, felt the need to control his story.
“A lot of times the media wanted to tell my family story. We’d hold press conferences for the gun buy-back…We’d tell our stories for the greater good,” MacDonald said. “But they could only tell so much. They could cut it up in the ways they [want to.] That’s when I decided I needed to tell this story and be totally in control of it.”
“The story for me wasn’t what happened to us,” he continued. “It’s the bigger picture of race and class.”
MacDonald praised the recent James “Whitey” Bulger trial coverage by Phillip Martin, the WGBH reporter who attempted to participate in the discussion by Skype but was unable due to technical problems.
“He… didn’t write in a gratuitous, titillating, gangster, pornographic way that a lot of people do,” MacDonald said. “He didn’t use words like, ‘getting whacked.’”
The event was co-organized by the Elma Lewis Center and ArtsEmerson, which is hosting the play columbinus, a poignant drama based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, now until September 29 at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. The director of columbinus, P.J. Paparelli, attended the event but did not speak on the panel.
Courtney Mark Grey, director of trauma services for the Boston Public Health Commission, also participated in the discussion.
Emerson President Lee Pelton began the evening saying that gun violence “is a public health crisis of enormous proportions—one that plays out every day, especially this week,” referring to the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shooting that killed 13.
Pelton noted that gun violence is the second leading cause of death among young people up to the age of 19. Last year, after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, Pelton established the College Presidents’ Gun Violence Resource Center to foster dialogue about the issue at institutions across the United States.