How the ‘normal guy’ narrative infects reporting

December 8, 2015
alter ego in mirror

So it happened again. Some psychopath goes on a killing spree, and the media is quick to report that no one saw it coming and that he or she was just a regular guy or gal. It’s a narrative set early and often. Yet, it’s usually dead wrong. Just about every in-depth study of the “normal guy” defense shows it to be a red herring, advanced by neighbors and acquaintances who don’t want to get involved and by family with a vested interest in shielding any blame. It seems more likely than not that there are always clues, yet the media is quick to advance the “normal guy” narrative. Why?

Could it be that it’s just more terrifying and better for ratings? Surely, we can understand that troubled people do crazy things. And we can protect ourselves from them by simply staying clear. Not so much with normal guys, they are family and friends, perhaps a colleague at work.

The San Bernardino terrorist attack is a prime example. At first, the media painted the shooters as a normal family, quiet, parents, nothing to suggest they were radicals. Looking back, the media overlooked obvious clues. In an interview with three members of the shooter’s mosque, including an assistant imam, the reporter took it on face value when one of the three men contended that the family was living the great American dream, and when another suggested that he himself was actually a victim for being questioned by police. Not exactly sensible responses, considering that the one’s definition of the great American dream includes building bombs in the living room while your six-month-old daughter sleeps nearby or another’s contention that police doing their jobs is somehow an affront.

But it gets even weirder. When an Italian newspaper interviewed the shooter’s father, he admitted that he knew his son had become radicalized and that he hated Israel. His father claimed he tried to calm the son by telling him to settle down because Israel would be destroyed in the next two years. Just a regular “normal guy” father and son conversation, right?

The “normal guy” narrative continues to taint news reporting and all too often sets an early tone that remains embedded in the story, making our society seem more dangerous and chaotic than reality. It may win eyeballs and pump ratings, but it needs to be expunged from the toolbox of cheap media tricks and replaced with simply the truth.

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