Headlines such as, “Tragedy in Littleton”, “Could guns have prevented the massacre”, “Who’s to blame for Columbine”, have recently flooded the newspapers and airways, leaving much of the public disillusioned. These headlines exhibit the increasing role that media plays concerning the gun control debate.
>From the onset, the media has had an enormous responsibility in covering the controversy effectively. However, many are currently concerned with media’s involvement in the debate, questioning their accuracy, the effects of their coverage, and if media is bias in its accounts. With occurrences of gun violence on the rise in schools, churches, and places of employment, media has been thrust into action to get the coverage. It is the manner in which that media chooses to cover these tragedies, that is being called into question. An industry that once prided itself on facilitating democracy and informing the public, has now blurred the lines between news and entertainment, thereby undermining their own accountability, making them a key issue in the debates concerning gun control.
Much of the problem with the media’s coverage of gun related issues, is their inaccuracy in reporting the stories. Events are often misconstrued by the media, they leave out important factors, and fail to ask crucial questions about the stories they report. For instance, of three networks reporting on a Washington DC gun buy back program, none questioned whether the program might actually have an impact on gun related crime in Washington, nor did they explore whether the number of guns returned was substantial (Torobin). When in fact, to spite the good intentions of the buyback program, there is still roughly one gun for every four DC residents, and that most of the guns collected came from people who generally don’t perpetuate gun violence (Torobin). This type of reporting leads to the misconceptions of their audiences, thereby misguiding viewers about gun control and related issues. The quality of reporting and media coverage has been undermined by the competition to broadca!
st the story first to the public. The shootings that took place in Atlanta have illustrated so far that in the 24 hour news cycle, airing premature claims and generalizations is more important than pausing to double check the facts (Torobin). Conflicting reports from its Atlanta affiliates convinced CNN to hold back its coverage, claiming that, “Our editorial edition was to be accurate with what we went with, rather then being concerned with being first”(Torobin). However, much of that coverage wasn’t nearly as cautious. CNN broadcasters made comments asserting that the gunman had in fact murdered his family in a 1993 rampage, a charge which he had been clearly fully of.
What are the effects of such media coverage? First, you have to consider the immense volume of the coverage being discussed, and then examine how much of the information influences the audience. The Colorado shootings that occurred at the hands of two disaffected classmates generated over 150 stories on the network evening newscasts within one week of the shooting (and a total of 292 stories to date), in addition to the extensive live local and national television coverage of the shooting as they occurred. Similarly, shooting at eight separate public schools around the country generated 378 stories and more than 10 hours of airtime within the first seven days of each incident (Lichter, Holian). The shooting that occurred at Columbine ranked the third most covered story within the decade, only to be beaten out by the Rodney King Verdict and the TWA crash of flight 800 (Lichter, Holian). The problem is that such heavily concentrated attention on a few tragic incidents may distor!
t public perception of youth crime and school safety in America. While the media continues to portray school shootings as a nationwide epidemic that is growing year by year, the fact of the matter is that America’s children have a less than a one in a million chance of becoming the victim of a school shooting (Lichter, Holian). To spite the terrible tragedies that have occurred over the past two years, our schools have not developed into a firing range. They are just portrayed that way on television. Ironically, although media violence was the most frequently cited cause of the school shootings, restrictions on the content of popular entertainment were never put forth as a way to reduce the risk of school violence, at least not in the immediate aftermath of the shootings that occurred (Lichter, Holian). Howard Kurtz, of the Washington Post wrote, “It happens with stunning swiftness after each tragedy: The media, and those with access to the media, look for some larger force to!
If the media is not accepting its part of the blame, then who or what are they placing the blame on? The Internet, weak gun control legislation, violent movies, violent computer games, violent music, violent television, parents out of touch with their kids, male identity crisis, lack of parental supervision, and bisexuality have all served as the scapegoat for media’s role in the recent outlash of shootings in America’s schools (After School). When sources or reporters addressed the causes of these shootings, they blamed societal causes more frequently than individual ones, by 55 percent to 45 percent according to a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Sixty-three of on air criticisms of popular entertainment and 88 percent of news sources who blamed guns treated each shooting in the news as a symptom of broader social problems, rather than limiting their comments to the shooters involved (Lichter, Holian). Still, within hours of the shooting at Columbine High!
School the first instinct of some network producers was to exploit the tragedy and to attack gun rights advocates instead of holding the perpetuators responsible or focusing the blame on the lax parenting and inattentive school officials. While those angles have received attention in the massive national coverage, all the networks served as a one sided conduits for the arguments of gun control advocates (Colorado Tragedy). The media and much of American society are making a serious mistake when they make the mental leap of assigning blame for a crime committed with guns, to those who advocate the rightful, lawful ownership of guns. Cognizant that the national media always showers blame on the NRA after a high profile shooting, the NRA is forced to reiterate that is has never advocated the right to mow down innocent bystanders with firearms (Bozell).
So why do we so quickly expect the NRA to apologize somehow for the deaths of 13 victims and their murderers? The answer may exist in the fact that there is a bias in the media, and often act as a tool for gun control advocates, rather then being impartial. A Mediawatch study proved that networks often use their First Amendment privileges to promote opponents of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Stories favoring gun control outnumbered those against gun control by 157 to 10, or a ratio of almost 16 to1 (77 were neutral). Out of 103 evening news segments, pro gun control stories outnumbered anti-gun controls by 70 to. In 141 morning show gun policy segments, stories loaded in favor of gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control 87 to 4. The morning shows were also far more likely to invite gun control spokesman for interview segments, outnumbering gun rights advocates 37 to 12 (Dickens).
Is this type of media coverage fair? For instance, ABC’s Peter Jennings announced his networks attack piece the day after the slaughter in Colorado: “The gun lobby scaled down its plans, but it may have not been enough” (Bozell). While ABC and CBS did manage to hold off, temporarily, on the gun control preaching, within hours of the shooting NBC Nightly News went to Suzanne Wilson the mother of a girl killed 12 months ago at a school shooting in Jonesboro, who is now a gun control crusader (Colorado Tragedy). Not once in any of these stories did reporters highlight statistics showing how passage of concealed weapons laws, have reduced crime or that one of the Framer’s intents of the Second Amendment was to grant citizens the ability to protect themselves and loved ones from the criminally-minded like the crazed murderers in Colorado (Bozell).
Have they considered someone defending their life or property with a firearm to be newsworthy? The solutions that media has offered the public, or in correlation to the stance it took on gun related issues. Moreover, the solution that was advocated the most often was itself national in scope: federal legislation for stricter forms of gun control. However, while media has looked to stronger legislation to curb the violence associated with guns, they have not considered the effects that such legislation would have on the issue. On a Wednesday night broadcast, without showing how any of the proposed new rules would have prevented the latest two workplace shootings, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather used them as a hook to lament the lack of congressional action on gun control: “We’ve also been digging into what ever happened to even modest gun control measures in the US Congress” (CBS Pushed). On the flip side of the coin, some sources of media have backed away from the legislati!
ve solution, and looked to society for the solutions, such as family, schools, and the faith. According to a debate that took place on CNN’s early edition, not all the answers can be found in state legislatures and city councils. “We need to talk to our children after they get home from school every night at the dinner table and on weekends to find out what they are thinking…the solution is found in our children” (School Shootings). Interestingly enough, this switch comes in the wake of a CNN/TIME poll that indicated that the support for stricter gun control laws is down from a high set in 1992 (Holland). When asked the question, “Do you favor or oppose stricter gun control,” in 1993, 70 percent answered in favor, in comparison to 61 percent presently in favor of more government regulation (Holland). However, a very small minority from the media, have looked inward, examining themselves in search for solutions. They have seen problems of reporting the news fairly and factually!
and avoiding sensationalism. In short, a large majority of news professionals sense a degradation of the culture of news – from one that was steeped in the verification and a steadfast respect for the facts, toward one that favors argument, opinion mongering, haste, and infotainment (Kovach).
Journalists have cited that the business aspect of the industry is creating the quality problems that alienate the audience. The public’s effort to understand the issues surrounding gun violence or to develop appropriate strategies to combat it is not likely to be helped very much by business as usual (The Media). Actor, Edward James Olmos, stated that, “For every half hour of televisions [news], you have 23 minutes of programming and seven minutes of commercials. And in that 23 minutes, if it weren’t for the weather and the sports, you would not have any positive news. As for putting in even six minutes of hope, of pride, of dignity, — it doesn’t sell.” No matter where the solution to curb gun violence comes from, part of the answer lies in the media. Through sensationalism, inaccuracy, and a plain disregard for the facts the media has distorted the image of the gun control debate, and presented a much more contrived picture to the public. This type of journalism has lead to!
more frustration by the audience, in their attempts to make sense of the debate. As a result, the public has become increasingly disaffected from the press.
Once the media realizes that they are a part of the problem, and ceases their divulging of misinformation to their audiences, then they could help facilitate a solution to this controversial issue. Until then, they will remain as an obstacle, and a conduit for further discord that already surrounds the gun control debate.
Bozell, Brent L. Media Lock and Load on the Second Amendment. May 4, 1999 https://www.mediaresearch.org/scripts/temp/Doc2941.html Franken
Kates, Don B. Firearms and Violence: Issues of Public Policy. Cambridge, Mass. Ballinger, 1984
Keating. Poll: Support for stricter gun control remains strong. July 30, 1999 https://cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/07/30/poll/ Hollian,
King, John. School Shooting sparks gun control debate. April 22, 1999 https://cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1999/04/21/school.shooting/ Holland,
Kovach, Bill. The National Survey of Journalists. The Committee of Concerned Journalists and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Kruschke, Earl R. Gun Control, A reference handbook. Santa Barbara, California. ABC-CLIO, 1995 Windlesham, Lord. Politics, Punishment, and Populism. New York. Oxford, 1998
Lichter, Robert. Lights! Camera! School Violence! Center for Media And Public Affairs, August 27, 1999
Torobin, Jeremy. Networks Jump the Gun on D.C.’s Buyback Program. August 1999 https://www.newswatch.org/mediacritic/aug99/ 990826m1.htm