Gabrielle Giffords Crisis: A Rush To Judgment

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 9, 2011 – 12:49 PM

Within minutes of yesterday’s tragic shooting in Arizona, my Twitter feed filled up with dozens of Tweets blaming the mad act on Sarah Palin’s “crosshairs” target list, the Tea Party, and gun rights advocates.

To be sure, Ms. Palin’s crosshairs chart and the violent undercurrent witnessed at numerous town hall meetings contributed to an ever-coarsening political culture. But in the first moments of yesterday’s crisis, we had no idea whether any of those things had anything to do with what motivated the shooter.

Sarah Palin's Crosshairs Map

Sarah Palin's Crosshairs Map

Sure, the shooter might have been encouraged by Ms. Palin’s crosshairs list or been egged on by a bombastic talk show host. But he just as reasonably could have been a mentally ill 20-something experiencing a psychotic break. Speculating about his motives before his very identity was even known seems imprudent, if not irresponsible.

Regardless, the public’s rush to judgment is typical of a crisis. The public doesn’t wait for all of the facts to emerge before making up its mind. Few people refuse to form an opinion before they’ve heard from both sides. And even fewer analyze a post-incident report to consider whether there was more to the story than they originally thought. 

Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Yesterday’s rush to judgment is instructive for companies, organizations, and public figures in the early moments of a crisis. The public tends to assign roles to players in a crisis (“good guy” or “bad guy”) almost immediately. Therefore, it’s critical for those in crisis to begin communicating the right messages instantly. Once a company, organization, or public figure is cast in the “bad guy” role, it’s nearly impossible to reverse the narrative.

Sarah Palin has already failed at this. The head of her Political Action Committee appeared on the radio yesterday, claiming that the targets in the “crosshairs” ad were not actually targets (this, despite Ms. Palin personally referring to them as “bulls-eyes”). Her spokesperson went on to suggest the shooter was actually a liberal.

There was only one thing Ms. Palin – or her spokesperson – should have said yesterday: That public figures have an obligation to use responsible language, and that all of us in the public arena need to do a better job of making sure we don’t cross any lines.

On a personal note, I lived in Tucson for several years during the early-mid 1990s, and extend my deepest sympathies to my former neighbors and friends who lost loved ones yesterday. May those still hanging on make a full recovery, and may we all have the chance to cheer when Rep. Giffords makes her triumphant return to the House floor.

Related: Gabrielle Giffords: When The Media Gets It Wrong

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Comments (3)

  1. By M. Edward (Ed) Borasky:

    “There was only one thing Ms. Palin – or her spokesperson – should have said yesterday: That public figures have an obligation to use responsible language, and that all of us in the public arena need to do a better job of making sure we don’t cross any lines.”

    The simple fact of the matter, however, is that Ms. Palin has rarely shied away from inflammatory speech. She recently called for Julian Assange to be “hunted down”, saying he was “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.” She is, in a word, uncoachable.

  2. By Michael:

    We’ve had some time to witness shameless ideologues attempting to capitalize on the murders for their own gain. This is in itself horrific and tragic.

    Opposing the Right apparently means tearing down people (Palin, Limbaugh, etc.) with innuendo, falsehoods and hateful rhetoric. As quickly as 2 hours after the massacre the Left came out gunning for Palin and company. Shameful.

    Why cause more pain..? Why spread hate..?

    Have we forgotten the initial reactions to the Fort Hood murders that tried to blame the Right. It stopped pretty quickly when it was realized that the murderer was a devout Muslim and a follower of a radical Islamic… then it all got pretty quiet on the blame front.

    This time it’s a described “Liberal pot-head” who read the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. His friend says he didn’t watch TV and didn’t listen to talk radio. He was apolitical.

    That leaves a lot of egg on a few faces (and networks).

    Using the murders for personal gain is also great way to lose any credibility with anyone outside a core audience of fellow haters (and rightly so).

    Polls taken indicate the majority of Americans don’t buy the argument that heated rhetoric was responsible for this horrendous crime. That should give those who make their living stirring the pot of distrust and hate pause.

    Regular people don’t buy (or like) the hate speech and the blow-back has been quite something to see. Indications are that this will continue to turn people off (thankfully).

    Scoring points with a good presentation, a good argument is one thing. Using a tragedy to try to destroy people with hate-filled words is a stellar example of what most of us are so tired of.

    Here’s hoping lessons were learned and a more civil discourse will take place. Hopefully the haters will resist the urge to slither out on to the national stage armed with ideology in place of facts the next time a psychopath decides to kill.

    Unfortunately, history is not on our side.

  3. By Brad Phillips:

    Michael – I think you make some important points, and I’m glad you stopped by the blog and left a comment. The one thing I’d say is that his ideology isn’t known (yes, there are some hints he was leftist, as you suggest, but there are others that suggest he’s right, such as listing Ayn Rand as a favorite author).

    Until and unless we hear directly from him, I’m going to reserve judgment about his motives. But I agree with the premise of your comment, that a rush to judgment isn’t particularly helpful in moments such as this one.

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