You’d be hard pressed, in this day of Virginia Tech/Columbine/Navy Yard to blame a college for panicking around reports of a potential gunman. But panic is exactly what Stevenson University did today, and blame I will.
“Active shooter” they instant-messaged students and blazed in red across their website on the Owings Mills campus that serves a few thousand students. A student had reported a man carrying something that looked like a rifle walking toward campus. Active shooter is something campuses prepare for now, and that part of their response was mostly dead-on. Except the “active shooter” part.
There’s a huge gulf between “maybe a guy with a gun” and “active shooter.” A divide that cannot and should not be breached with words. It’s a gulf wide enough you’d need a gun to hit the other side. You’d need to pull the trigger. No shots fired, no active shooter.
But the word gets clicks, and the news-as-entertainment industry responded in kind with salacious tweets about “#BREAKING: Active Shooter Reported …” or, if they wanted to be cautious put it in scare quotes like it’s all Stevenson’s fault for using the phrase in the first place.
I was slightly proud of the print press at The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post for carefully getting it right and calling the situation “gunman” or similar phrasing compared to FOX Baltimore and the wire services that went with the scary sound bite. None of the links gave more than a few paragraphs parroting the university. There was no “there” there.
It’s like conservative governors calling their political opponents “terrorists” – an exercise in bombast and hyperbole that leaches meaning from real active shooter situations by playing on a tired nerve until we cannot know how to respond.
It’s shameful click-mongering by a dying industry desperate for online ad revenue.
You know who you are and why you did the thing you did. Don’t try to defend it. You know what you knew – that there was precious little justification other than click-baiting. Any defense I can imagine rings hollow, but go ahead and try.
Karl Hille lived and breathed local news beat reporting in Greenbelt and the Baltimore/Washington region for more than 12 years until the 2007 recession. While learning and improving the online side of the Baltimore Examiner operations, his platform dropped out from under his feet, then his rebound job at a regional business news magazine downsized him three months later. Now, working for the “dark side” – public communications work by day for the awesome government agency – he is going back to school to find the critical intersection of news, investigation, and the Internet – and re-learning how to be a student while he’s the only guy on campus sporting a fedora.