Loaded Coverage

How the news media miss the mark on the gun issue.

When Joel Myrick heard a shot ring out at Pearl High School, he recognized the sound immediately. Myrick, an assistant principal at the school, herded students into his office and locked the door behind them. He walked out into a common area, where he saw a boy named Luke Woodham shoot another student with a hunting rifle and start down a hallway. Myrick suspected he would go from room to room firing at others, but he had no way of stopping him.

Then Myrick remembered that he had a gun in his car; he had recently visited out-of-town relatives, and he always took his .45 automatic with him when he traveled. He ran to the car, found the gun, and put a round in the chamber. He turned back toward the school, only to find Woodham running to his own vehicle. When the boy spun out in the grass trying to drive away, Myrick went over to the car with his gun trained on Woodham and told him to get out. He forced Woodham to the ground and waited for police to arrive.

So the mayhem in Pearl, Mississippi, ended. Two students died and seven more were wounded in the October 1, 1997, attack. Woodham had additional rounds in his gun at the time he was arrested. The toll could have gone higher had it not been for Myrick.

Anyone reading the local paper, the Rankin County News, would have known all about Joel Myrick's heroics. But anyone watching evening newscasts on, say, ABC, CBS, or CNN wouldn't have known that it took an armed man to stop the shooting. None of them mentioned it. According to the Alexandria, Virginia-based Media Research Center, NBC mentioned it just twice, once on the October 2 Nightly News and once on the Today show the next morning.

Such coverage--or, in this case, noncoverage--gives viewers a one-sided perspective on firearms. Not reporting fully what happened in Pearl contributes to the notion that either someone is using guns to kill and maim students, New York commuters, or Capitol Hill police officers (as on occasion someone has) or...nothing. In other words, there's no good reason for the 30 million people watching the networks' nightly newscasts, or the 13 million watching morning newscasts, to own a gun, much less use it.

Two studies of media bias in the last year have attempted to measure the way selective reporting affects coverage of gun issues. One came from the conservative Media Research Center, which highlighted the short shrift given Myrick. The other was written by Brian Patrick, a communications researcher at the University of Michigan and author of The National Rifle Association and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage, a forthcoming book based on his doctoral dissertation. "It's clear that when it comes to the gun debate," said MRC Chairman Brent Bozell, "TV news is no objective referee. It is a partisan player that has chosen sides--the anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment side."

Some of the findings concerning the way journalists miss the mark on guns may be familiar. For instance, there's the tally of pro-gun control and pro-gun rights statements on news programs. In "Outgunned: How the Network News Media Are Spinning the Gun Control Debate," which the MRC released in January, the group tracked the number of statements supporting gun control vs. the number supporting gun rights on evening news broadcasts on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, and on morning news programs on ABC, NBC, and CBS. Statements that violent crime occurs because of guns, not criminals, or that gun control prevents crime were considered to be pro-gun control. Statements suggesting that gun control would not reduce crime; that criminals, not guns, are the problem; that Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; and that right-to-carry laws for concealed weapons have caused a drop in crime were all considered pro-gun rights. Stories with a disparity of greater than 1.5 to 1 were regarded as either pro-gun control or pro-gun rights.

During the two-year period from July 1, 1997, through June 30, 1999, the MRC counted 653 gun-related stories. Those advocating more gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control by 357 to 36, or a ratio of almost 10 to 1. The rest were neutral. In addition, the organization found that the networks were twice as likely to broadcast anti-gun soundbites as pro-gun ones. Gun control advocates appeared on the morning shows as guests on 82 occasions, compared to just 37 for gun-rights activists.

Then there's the use of loaded adjectives and verbs of attribution. Patrick, the University of Michigan researcher, compared reporting on five groups: the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Handgun Control Inc. (A self-described "radical pluralist," Patrick is a member of both the NRA and the ACLU). Unlike the MRC, Patrick focused on print journalism in what he calls the "elite" press--The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor. The period he covered ran from January 1990 through June 1998. He looked at news stories (59.5 percent of the articles sampled), editorials and columns (20 percent), letters to the editor (12.7 percent), and book reviews, entertainment announcements, and obituaries (1.7 percent).

Patrick's results, released in June, are similar to the MRC's. He found that journalists quote NRA officials about half as often as Handgun Control officials and only a third as much as representatives of the other groups. When reporters and opinion writers do quote them, they tend to use unfriendly terms of attribution such as "claims," "whines," or "would have us believe." Spokesmen for Handgun Control, by contrast, "found," "showed," or "demonstrated." The effect, says Patrick, is to make NRA positions appear tentative, while those of other groups come off as undisputed facts.

Journalists don't mind getting personal in their treatment of group leaders. But while they tend to describe Handgun Control's Sarah Brady in positive terms like indefatigable, effective, and courteous, they use words like portly, sweaty, and squinty for NRA officials. A 1994 article in The New York Times Magazine on then-NRA President Tanya Metaksa is a good example: "Metaksa appeared in the doorway. She is an intimidating presence. Square shouldered, large-breasted, handsome. She has a withering stare that she says comes from her late father." Not a particularly inviting portrait. Patrick couldn't help noticing that coverage of the other groups didn't mention the size of the leadership's breasts.

Still, such sneers say more about the reporter than the subject. More serious for the outcome of the gun debate in this country are the stories, like Joel Myrick's, that reporters don't write or broadcast and the questions they don't ask. Consider a few examples.

In April 1998, a 14-year-old middle school student in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, walked into a school dance with a .25-caliber handgun and opened fire, killing a science teacher and wounding several students. He turned to flee, but the owner of the hall, James Strand, armed with a shotgun, chased him into a field. When the boy stopped to reload, Strand captured him and held him until police arrived 11 minutes later.

Out of 596 TV, newspaper, and magazine stories on the Edinboro crime, just 35 mentioned Strand, reports economist John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, in a 1999 National Review article. Even when the media did report Strand's story, they didn't report all of it. The New York Daily News said only that Strand had "persuaded" the shooter to surrender. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said Strand chased the shooter down and "held him until police came."

Much the same is true in the case of Joel Myrick, says Lott. Out of 687 stories he found on the shootings in Pearl, just 19 made reference to Myrick. Some of those that mentioned him left his gun out of the story. CBS's Dan Rather, for example, reported, "Myrick eventually subdued the gunman." How he "subdued" him Rather didn't say.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • bensimpsonnz@gmail.com||

    I can not believe that you guys are trying to justify gun laws in America. Look at the statistics. It is articles like this that justify the worlds view on the American people. Go traveling and see what the rest of the worlds population are saying about you, heres a scoop, it's not positive. Maybe its time to spend some money on healthcare and look after your less fortunate, rather than supplying them with cheap firearms and reasons to be unhappy. Wake up from your deluded view that guns are ok. Or don't, and continue to deal with the consequences.

    Kind Regards - A doctor from NZ

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