COLUMN: The media fails in their portrayals of Muslim and Caucasian shooters
Both the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter and the Sutherland Springs shooter have something in common beside committing horrendous crimes.
They both had a history of mental illness.
However, the way the media portrayed Omar Mateen, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooter, and Devin Kelley, the Sutherland Springs Texas shooter – you would never know.
This is the stigma we have created in the divisive American political climate in 2017: if you commit a heinous act of violence and are white, there will be a rush to explain away the reason for your actions. If you are anything else, then sweeping generalizations of your ethnicity, religion or culture will be made.
When news of the Orlando shooting broke, headlines read “Omar Mateen: Angry, violent 'bigot' who pledged allegiance to ISIS," and “Omar Mateen described himself as 'Islamic soldier' in 911 calls to police” from CNN, Washington Post and The Guardian.
Mateen’s association to ISIS isn't debatable, but there was more to Mateen's motive than just hate. Media organizations played a role in marginalizing Mateen’s history of mental illness and abusive behavior in favor of playing up the idea of a radical Islamic terrorist in America.
Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy said at first, Omar was the typical family oriented husband. A few months into their marriage, however, she said he would sometimes become enraged for no reason.
She said physical abuse became a regular occurrence and she feared her safety.
But how did the media coverage of Kelley differ from Mateen?
The headlines initially reported after the Sutherland Spring shooting from NBC, CNN, and Washington Post read, “Texas Gunman Devin Kelley Escaped from Mental Health Facility in 2012,” “Texas church shooter Devin Patrick Kelley's troubled past emerges,” and “Texas church gunman escaped mental health facility in 2012 after threatening military superiors” — showing a completely different image than Mateen.
How can Kelley be characterized so differently than another who perpetrated a similarly horrible act of violence, when the warning signs were there the entire time:
- Kelley was placed in Peak Behavioral Health Services hospital in Santa Teresa after he attempted to carry out death threats made on his military chain of command
- He escaped from the mental health institute and was detained without incidence by police after he was found near a bus station
- He was court martialed in 2012 for assault and served 12 months in military prison
- He was discharged from the Air Force in 2016 due to "bad conduct"
During this time, his then-wife reported that Kelley beat her and her son. The charges of domestic violence ended his first marriage.
What it didn’t end was his behavior.
Kelley remarried prior to the shooting and sent his mother-in-law threatening text messages, according to New York Daily News.
The media later corrected itself with reports on Mateen’s mental health, but at that point, the damage was done. America saw a Muslim man who pledged allegiance to ISIS and killed 49 people.
This is the only picture people had of him. It will remain as the picture people paint in their minds when they think of Mateen.
With Kelley, that picture isn't as cut and dry.
Kelley was portrayed from the beginning as the “white man with mental health issues.” This is what America saw. It’s almost as if his acts were dismissed as a symptom of his issues.
The difference between Mateen and Kelley’s portrayal in the media painted a clear picture and reinforced the stereotype that Muslims are intrinsically linked to terrorism: that if you are Muslim, you are a terrorist and if you are a white male, you have mental health problems.
This failure of the media is a danger to the way America views the Muslim community and mental health.