Why some in the media are holding back on a motive in the Club Q shootings

Pride parade in Colorado Springs. Photo (cc) 2013 by Stephen Rees.

You may have noticed some reluctance on the part of the media to label the mass killings in Colorado Springs as a hate crime aimed at the LGBTQ community. Looking at the case from the outside, the shooter certainly appears to have been motivated by anti-LGBTQ animus. He burst into Club Q, an LGBTQ club, and started firing before he was taken down by a military veteran. The Colorado Sun, quoting an anonymous police source, reported as early as Sunday that “law enforcement has collected evidence suggesting the shooting was a hate crime.”

Despite all that, many commentators are holding back. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, even while decrying the right’s exploitation of anti-transgender and anti-drag show sentiment, felt compelled to write: “Perhaps we’ll learn something in the coming days that will put these murders, which took place on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, into a new light, but right now, it seems hard to separate them from a nationwide campaign of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. incitement.”

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Why the caution? I suspect some of it stems from the aftermath of the mass killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. That horrifying incident claimed 49 lives. Like Club Q, the Pulse catered to the LGBTQ community, and the shootings were immediately labeled a crime motivated by hatred of LGBTQ people. And so we all believed it was — until evidence to the contrary emerged. As Jane Coaston explained in Vox in 2018, the shooter had originally intended to attack a shopping and entertainment complex but decided security was too tight. His wife told investigators that he chose the Pulse at random. Coaston wrote:

This evidence dramatically changes the mass shooting’s narrative; politicians and individuals across the political spectrum had positioned it as an anti-LGBTQ hate crime. Instead, the new evidence suggests, the Pulse nightclub shooting was intended as revenge for US anti-terror policies abroad.

The evidence emerged during the trial of the shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, whom the federal government charged with aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. Federal prosecutors argued that Salman had helped her husband plan and orchestrate the attack.

What we later learned about the Pulse shootings is a good reminder that journalism needs to be grounded in evidence. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel put it in their classic book “The Elements of Journalism,” our work should be grounded in “a discipline of verification.” We all know what the Colorado Springs incident looks like, but until we know for sure, cautionary language such as Goldberg’s is the proper way to frame this.

Of course, there’s an additional challenge: Before can can arrive at an understanding of what happened, we’re already on to the next mass shooting. Colorado Springs came right after the killings of three University of Virginia football players. Then, on Tuesday night, a gunman killed six people at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia.

So no, we shouldn’t get ahead of the story. But what we can do at moments like this is call out politicians who try to turn us against each other because of race or sexual orientation, and whose only answer to the spread of gun-related violence is more guns. Those are universal values regardless of the details of any particular incident.

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