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.

In May 1998, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel walked into the crowded cafeteria of Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, and opened up on students with a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle. He shot wildly at first, then started singling students out for death. At one point Kinkel walked up to a student who was lying on the floor, placed the rifle to her head, and attempted to fire three times, but nothing happened. Wrestler Jacob Ryker, shot through the lung in the first wave of bullets, charged the 15 feet separating him from Kinkel, tackled him, and disarmed him. Had Ryker not done so, the toll could have been much higher than the roughly two dozen injuries and two deaths the shooting caused.

In a Nightline broadcast shortly after the shooting, ABC's Ted Koppel credited Ryker with halting the shooting. But once the details of the shooting were out of the way, the program quickly turned into another debate on gun control. Koppel and his reporters never explained how it was that Ryker knew when to attack Kinkel; the hero could have been doing nothing more than making himself a better target in a suicidal charge. It turned out that Ryker and his family were hunters and target shooters. From the sounds the gun made, Ryker knew Kinkel was out of ammunition. Ryker's parents credited his familiarity with firearms with helping to stop the shooting.

In each case, guns were part of the problem, but they were also part of the solution. Many media outlets told only the first side of the story. That would be poor reporting under any circumstance, but it is particularly egregious given the amount of time and energy the media have devoted to covering these incidents. In its study, the MRC counted 653 TV news segments on gun policy in two years. In light of the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and other school shootings, the attention was understandable. But with all that time devoted to a single issue, there was plenty of opportunity to tell the full story.

Emblematic of the media's approach to guns and violence is that of Good Morning, America co-host Charles Gibson, who in a June 4, 1999, interview urged President Clinton to do the right thing in the wake of the Columbine shootings. "When you went to Littleton," Gibson said, "a friend of yours who supports you on gun control said to me in the last 48 hours, 'The President'–because, as he said, Littleton has seared the national conscience–'the President had a chance to roar on gun control, and he meowed.' And that was a friend of yours. There are very basic measures that could be taken that people agree on. We register every automobile in America. We don't register guns. That's a step that would make a difference."

If Gibson were less interested in editorializing than in reporting, he might have told viewers that Darrell Scott, whose 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, died in the Columbine massacre, was more skeptical about new gun control measures. To her credit, NBC's Gwen Ifill reported that Scott told Congress, "No amount of laws can stop someone who spends months planning this type of massacre."

The difficulty that gun owners and organizations like the NRA have in telling their stories plays out in other ways, Patrick found. For instance, the print media routinely cover pseudo-events of other interest groups that they wouldn't think of covering for the NRA. Coverage of NRA press conferences, press releases, reports, and demonstrations is about one-fifth of Handgun Control's and about one-seventh of the AARP's.

Indeed, Patrick reports in his study, the NRA actually receives more coverage as a result of other groups' pseudo-events than it does from its own. "None of the other interest groups receives similar treatment," he writes. In particular, Patrick cites a 1993 Los Angeles Times article, "Protestors Against Gun Violence Target NRA Offices," that he says appeared "to be taken directly from a press release." When journalists do cover an NRA event, Patrick says, they tend to analyze it as an exercise in media manipulation. Reporters end up interviewing each other instead of NRA officials to report on the success or failure of the organization's public relations effort.

Gun control proponents apparently expect more sympathetic treatment when it comes to coverage of their events. In June 1996, John Lott was searching for someone to provide critical comments at a Cato Institute event focusing on research in which he and economist David Mustard had found that allowing more people to carry guns reduces crime. He was having a hard time finding anyone to disagree with him publicly, which seemed odd given the obvious antipathy toward his research among gun control activists. A conversation he had with Suzanne Glick of the Violence Policy Center helped explain their reluctance. According to Lott, she declined to comment on his findings at Cato because she didn't want to "help give any publicity to the paper." When he explained that C-SPAN would be covering the Cato event, Lott recalls, she said she didn't care because "we can get good media whenever we want."

And they can count on careless reporting on their behalf. Rather than comment directly on Lott's findings, many activists tried to downplay their significance by saying that the gun industry had, in effect, bought and paid for them. Specifically, they noted that Lott's academic position, then at the University of Chicago, was funded by a grant from the Olin Foundation. (See "Cold Comfort," January.) The foundation, the Associated Press reported in newspapers across the country, "is associated with the Olin Corp. Olin's Winchester division manufactures rifles and bullets." As it happens, the two are separate organizations, and the Winchester division makes only ammunition, not guns. (In any case, Olin fellows are chosen by a faculty committee, not by the foundation.) But Lott said he knew of only one paper that, having carried the original AP story, also ran the subsequent correction.

Gun control advocates escape some of the negative press the NRA receives because journalists don't hold them to the same standards. As a matter of course, reporters treat the NRA as a special interest and lobbying powerhouse (which it can be) out to overturn the public will (which is a judgment call). Patrick cites a March 1996 Washington Post article detailing political contributions from the NRA to members of Congress. The story itself was generally balanced: The "president" of Common Cause described the contributions as a "classical" example of how money influences politics, while an NRA "chief lobbyist" (note the distinction in labeling) said she did not agree. The problem, Patrick writes, is that "there appears in the long run to be no comparable story on political donations" by Handgun Control or the other organizations whose coverage he examined.

Likewise, the media are in the habit of linking the NRA to any outbreak of gun-related violence, regardless of whether any of its members (to say nothing of its officials) are actually involved. This may mean juxtaposing photographs of crime scenes, weeping mothers, and grim memorials with stories about the NRA. Or the linkage may consist of a phone call to NRA officials asking for comment on a school shooting. The premise of such treatment is that access to weapons, which the organization defends, is to blame for the violence. One might just as easily juxtapose Handgun Control officials with the violence on the grounds that they limited the availability of guns to victims who might otherwise have been able to defend themselves.

But again, what the media don't report about guns and violence is just as important as what they do report. There are countless cases, full of drama and emotion, in which Americans use guns to prevent calamity. Based on survey data, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck estimates that Americans use guns to defend themselves as many as 2.5 million times a year. In the vast majority of these cases, the gun is not fired–simply brandishing it is enough to deter the attack. Such incidents rarely receive much coverage, and they rarely, if ever, prompt phone calls to Handgun Control.

In 1994 a Washington, D.C., woman heard noises late one night and discovered intruders who were in the process of binding and gagging one of her daughters. The daughter was a potential witness in a court case against one of the intruders. Seeing that the men were armed with knives and gasoline and fearing for her daughter's life, the woman scuffled with one of the intruders and wound up rolling down the stairs with one. She then got up, reached into a closet and pulled out a handgun, with which she shot one of the men. The other intruder fled. "I thank God that I did have a gun in here," she told a D.C. TV reporter, "because I know for a fact that if I didn't have a gun in here, we would be dead right now." D.C. has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, with the full support of anti-gun activists. Had this woman obeyed the law, she would almost certainly have been killed. (D.C. officials declined to charge her in connection with the shooting.) Reporters did not call Handgun Control for comment.

That same year, a 22-year-old Marine named Rayna Ross awoke one night to find a former boyfriend had broken into her Woodbridge, Virginia, apartment, armed with a bayonet. He had broken into her apartment before and, a Marine himself, had refused orders to stay away from her. But Ross had gotten a handgun to protect herself when the Marines wouldn't, and she shot and killed the intruder. No one called gun control organizations for comment.

At the time of her confirmation hearings in 1997, soon-to-be Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman said the hardships of growing up as a black person in Alabama had prepared her for the worst Washington could offer. She told reporters about a trip she took with her father when she was 5 years old to visit a minister on Christmas Eve. As they left the house, she noticed that her father's small silver pistol was out on the front seat of the car, a sign that he was afraid of trouble ahead. Sure enough, a group of Klansmen ran their car off the road. To keep the Klansmen from finding young Alexis, her father got out of the car and went to meet them. Before he left, he pressed the silver pistol into the little girl's hand and said, "If anyone opens this door, I want you to pull the trigger." Her father was beaten but survived the incident. No one called gun controllers to ask whether, the Klan notwithstanding, it was wrong to give the 5-year-old girl the means to protect herself.

In short, as Patrick observed, the "NRA is indeed treated much differently from the other groups." Mainstream press critics have shown little interest in this disparity. David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, for example, says he has not written on the topic and can't recall seeing any articles about it.

The few journalists who responded to Patrick's requests for interviews suggested that the NRA had hurt itself by moving out of Washington, D.C., in 1994 to a location in Fairfax County, Virginia, some 45 minutes away from the reporters centered in the nation's capital. Handgun Control remained in Washington and is therefore more accessible. Patrick also suggests there is a "cyclical feedback" problem in which news organizations copy each another. One journalist admitted his research was "parochial"; he looked at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other major publications to see what they had published on the subject. The biases in early stories were therefore recycled into new ones.

These biases are largely ideological. One journalist flatly told Patrick: "I've been a reporter for 25 years, and I'm familiar with the opinions of other people in the field. Elite reporters sympathize with gun control positions, not the NRA." Another observed, "Sarah Brady is just like us." (The reporters spoke with Patrick on the condition that he not divulge their names or employers.)

Given such prejudices, is it hopelessly unrealistic to expect fair reporting on the gun issue? Perhaps not. In March, Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote about an 83-year-old widower named A.D. Parker who had been awakened a few weeks before by the sounds of a burglar prying open the back door of his San Francisco home. Parker grabbed an old .38-caliber revolver from under his bed and went to the doorway of his bedroom, where he was confronted by Michael Moore, a convicted felon who was carrying a large wrench and a crowbar. Parker fired once, slammed the door, and dialed 911. Moore was pronounced dead a short time later from a gunshot wound to the chest. "I shot him just that once," Parker told The San Francisco Examiner. "If I had waited a second longer, I don't think I'd be around to tell my story." Raspberry, usually a strong supporter of stricter gun control, said the incident had given him pause. "In general, I think we'd all be a lot safer with a lot fewer guns," he wrote. "On the other hand, I'm very glad A.D. Parker was armed."

Unfortunately, that sort of open-mindedness is rare among elite journalists. More typical is the unabashed identification with the gun control cause that was reflected in a 1993 column by Thomas Winship, former editor of The Boston Globe, in the trade journal Editor and Publisher. Under the headline, "Step up the war against guns," Winship declared: "It is time to square off against guns. We are talking about a sustained newspaper crusade." He advised newspapers to highlight youth killings on page 1 and to report on gun manufacturing levels and the flow of guns. (These are themes that Patrick says he encountered in analyzing the content of the NRA's press coverage.) "Support all forms of gun licensing," said Winship, "in fact all causes the NRA opposes."

If the media really are fighting a war rather than reporting the news, they aren't just doing a disservice to their readers. They may be threatening the well-being of future shooting victims. If the war they're waging is successful–either through stricter laws or by convincing people that owning firearms isn't worth the risk–the next Joel Myrick may not have a gun.