Journalists want to know what kind of label to pin on the motives of Stephen Paddock, so we can go back to wrestling with theodicy questions like, oh, why so many Democrats voted for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. Where was God on election day?
Alas, new details in Vegas (Paddock shot a security man before the massacre began?) have only complicated the timeline of this tragedy.
What are journalists supposed to do? Well, this is the rare case when I want to point readers to a think piece during the middle of the week (as opposed to our weekend slots), in part because I get to plug a Poynter.org essay while sitting in the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. I've been here for several days speaking to a circle of international journalists.
The Poynter.org essay is called "The Journalism of Why: How we struggle to answer the hardest question," and it was written by veteran journalist and educator Roy Peter Clark.
Clark starts where I started here at GetReligion, hours after the massacre: With that familiar journalism mantra Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.
Who? We got that information pretty quick (unless you're talking about Paddock having help).
What? We got that.
When? The massacre timeline is evolving, but we know (or think we know) some of the basics.
Where? You get the point. Then Clark notes, quoting one of the journalism scholars who most influenced my academic career:
The Why: We do not know the answer, and, what is difficult to accept, we may never know in a way that all stakeholders and the public feel they need to know.
No wonder the great scholar of democracy and culture, James Carey, once referred to The Why as the dark, unexplored continent of American journalism:
Why answers to the question of explanation. It accounts for events, actions, and actors. It is a search for the deeper underlying factors which lie behind the surfaces of the news story. “A story is worthless if it doesn’t tell me why something happened,” says Allan M. Siegal, news editor of the New York Times. Well, Mr. Siegal goes too far. If we threw out all the stories in the Times that failed to answer the question “why,” there wouldn’t be much newspaper left beyond the advertisements. Nonetheless, the why element attempts to make things sensible, coherent, explicable. It satisfies our desire to believe that the world, at least most of the time, is driven by something other than blind chance.
At this point, major newsrooms are being forced to produce stories about why they don't know the "Why?" factor. The biggest Las Vegas massacre news, day after day, is that this question remains unanswered.
Yes, this is not normal. However, Clark discusses a number of tragic cases in which clear motives remained elusive, then writes:
Most of the crime narratives we experience are ones in which the motivation of the killer becomes clear. But there is another kind of story -- expressed as a higher art form -- because it adheres more to the ambiguities of real life. None other than William Shakespeare puts it into practice in the tragedy of Othello.
You will have to read the rest for yourself.
However, here is my hint at a summary: Sometimes, evil is best explained in art, as opposed to the conventions of crime coverage. Of course, I would also say that using the word "evil," or tossing Shakespeare into the mix opens the "Why?" door even further. At some point, millions of Americans are going to ask, well, why people go bad in the first place and, thus, why bad things happen to good people. There are news stories there. Trust me.
At some point, editors may want to get themselves a religion-beat professional to work on these kinds of stories. Art and religion? Yes, please.