Margaret Sullivan: There actually is a right or wrong side on the matter of controlling rampant gun violence

Police tape drapes over a chair near a pile of shoes after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday, Aug, 4, 2019. (Marshall Gorby/Dayton Daily News via AP)

Sadly, we in the news media know just how to do it.

When a mass shooting happens, even when it happens twice in a 24-hour period - even when the death toll soars into the dozens - we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened, we profile the shooter, we tell about the victims' lives, we get reaction from public officials.

It's difficult, gut-wrenching work for those journalists who are on the scene.

And then there's the next one. And the next one.

If journalism is supposed to be a positive force in society - and we know it can be - this is doing no good. Nothing changes. If anything, the pace of these tragedies is on the rise, as Saturday’s El Paso, Texas, massacre, so quickly followed by the one Sunday near Dayton, Ohio, seemed to prove.

Native Ohioan Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, told me she has been talking with many thoughtful journalists over the past two days.

"The only consensus: We have to change how we report all of these," said Schultz, who is married to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

But what, exactly, can that amount to?

I asked a few media observers whose views I particularly respect to share their thoughts.

"Sometimes, journalists don't just report the news: They can help a community or a country set an agenda," said Bill Grueskin, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is a professor at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism.

That means "shining a light on solutions as well as problems, and insisting on accountability all the way."

Sounds right, but what does that mean in this situation? For Grueskin, it means a coordinated approach among large and small news organizations; it means much greater accountability from officials who are in a position to resolve the crisis ("including ask them on, say, a weekly basis, what they've done this week to address the issue").

But, for Grueskin and others, one other requirement may be the toughest to approach: "It also means, alas, taking sides."

Just as there was in the 1950s and 1960s while covering civil rights, or today in covering the climate crisis, there actually is a right or wrong side on the matter of controlling rampant gun violence.

Journalists need to be on the right side of that, and not afraid to own it.

Although he was talking about citizens, not the media, this is the same change that Wired magazine editor in chief Nicholas Thompson pointed to in a Sunday tweet: "Citizens should demand that politicians in America, on the right and on the left, present a specific plan to counter the epidemic of mass shootings in the country."

The news media can certainly play a central role in making that happen.

Part of that is giving shorter shrift to the rote "thoughts and prayers" reactions of politicans and, as Schultz suggested, bringing a skeptical eye to the now-customary, largely Republican calls for better mental health care.

For her, that's painfully personal: "Last month, after years of struggle with depression and mental illness, my brother gave up. He didn't load up and go after innocent people. He found a quiet spot and killed himself. As the experts insist, harming oneself is a far more likely outcome of mental illness."

Can the news media really go on a righteous crusade about gun laws - or about identifying white supremacy - while maintaning their roles as truth-tellers?

In some cases, they must do so, said Tim O'Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion and a biographer of President Donald Trump.

Hard-news reporters must report aggressively, of course, but the other branch of the media - those who do analysis or commentary - must become more probing and sophisticated about pattern recognition: What often ties these kinds of events together.

"I think the media has soft-peddled Trump and the GOP's racism," O'Brien told me. "Trump has opened the door to tragedies like this and I think we can expect more. Nobody in the GOP has the political courage to come out strongly against him - and, in fact, many are happy to be complicit.

(Investigators have examined a manifesto posted online that included screeds against immigrants, and they believe the Texas shooting suspect posted the document. Little is known about the Dayton shooter's motivation at this point.)

There are, though, legitimate concerns about reaching these kinds of conclusions too quickly - and there is no need to do so. More important is diligent follow-through in the days, week and months after the attacks.

"We often want to leap too quickly to meaning, to some larger truth about events way before we are capable of that," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. He faults cable news, in particular, for "enabling partisans to try to politicize events" before we really know much - "a form of exploiting news, not covering it."

It's tricky, no doubt: Caution in the early hours; relentless accountability and no-euphemism truth-telling in the days ahead.

Can the news media manage to become part of the solution to this mind-numbing curse?

Albert Einstein is credited with saying "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results."

Maybe we in the news media don't really expect to help achieve different results. But if journalism is to be true to its public-service role, we must.

And so, we must stop doing what we’ve become tragically accomplished at: Doing the same thing. Over and over and over again.

| Courtesy Margaret Sullivan, op-ed mug shot.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.