The Journalist's Guide to
Gun Violence Coverage

Making sense of spin in the news

by Dr. Michael Brown

Back to News Accuracy Index Page

[Note: Dr. Brown has put his finger right on what's happening
in newsrooms everywhere. His razor-sharp analysis is reproduced
here by permission. You will recognize these policies if you
follow the news media. Alan.]

Download the expanded and updated 2013 version.
The classic original version is posted below.

 

by Dr. Michael Brown

Guns are a sad fact of life in American culture and are a major topic
in modern journalism. A good Journalist has a duty to get involved
and make a difference in this important societal debate. By following
certain guidelines, the concerned Journalist can be assured of having
the maximum impact on this shameful problem.

The first principle to remember is that subtle use of terminology can
covertly influence the reader. Adjectives should be chosen for
maximum anti-gun effect. When describing a gun, attach terms like
"automatic," "semi-automatic," "large caliber," "deadly," "high
powered," or "powerful." Almost any gun can be described by one or
more of these terms. More than two guns should be called an
"arsenal."

Try to include the term "assault weapon" if at all possible. This can
be combined with any of the terms above for best results. Nobody
actually knows what an assault weapon is, so you cannot be criticized
for this usage. Your local anti-gun organization can provide you with
a list of the latest buzz words like "junk guns," "Saturday Night
Specials," and "the criminal's weapon of choice."

Don't worry about getting technical details right. Many a reporter
has accidentally written about semi-automatic revolvers or committed
other minor errors. Since most people know little about guns, this is
not a problem. Only the gun nuts will complain and they don't count.
The emotional content of your article is much more important than the
factual details, since people are more easily influenced through their
emotions than through logic.

Broadcast Journalists should have a file tape showing a machine gun
firing on full automatic. Run this video while describing "automatic"
weapons used in a crime or confiscated by police. At the least, a
large graphic of a handgun should be displayed behind the on-air
personality when reading any crime story.

Do not waste words describing criminals who use guns to commit crimes.
Instead of calling them burglar, rapist, murderer, or repeat offender,
simply use the term "gunman." This helps the public associate all
forms of crime and violence with the possession of guns.

Whenever drug dealers are arrested, guns are usually confiscated by
the police. Mention the type and number of guns more prominently than
the type and quantity of drugs. Include the number of rounds of
ammunition seized, since the number will seem large to those who know
little about guns. Obviously, the drug dealers who had the guns
should now be called "gunmen."

Political discussions on gun control legislation usually involve
pro-gun organizations. Always refer to these organizations as "the
gun lobby." If space permits, mention how much money the gun lobby
has spent to influence political campaigns and describe their
legislative lobbying efforts as "arm twisting" or "threats."

Gun owners must never be seen in a positive light. Do not mention
that these misguided individuals may actually be well educated, or
have respectable jobs and healthy families. They should be called
"gun nuts" if possible or simply gun owners at best. Mention details
about their clothing, especially if they are wearing hunting clothes
or hats. Mention the simplistic slogans on their bumper stickers to
show that their intelligence level is low. Many gun owners drive
pickup trucks, hunt and live in rural areas. Use these details to
help portray them as ignorant rednecks. Don't use the word "hunt."
Always say that they "kill" animals.

Don't be afraid to interview these people, they are harmless even
though we don't portray them that way. Try to solicit comments that
can be taken out of context to show them in the worst possible light.

Never question the effectiveness of gun control laws or proposals.
Guns are evil and kill people. Removing guns from society can only be
good. Nobody really uses guns for legitimate self-defense, especially
women or children. Any stories about armed self-defense must be
minimized or suppressed.

Be careful about criticizing the police for responding slowly to 911
calls for help. It is best if the public feels like the police can be
relied upon to protect them at all times. If people are buying guns
to protect their families, you are not doing your job.

Emphasize stories where people kill family members and/or themselves
with guns. It is important to make the public feel like they could
lose control and start killing at any moment if they have a gun in the
house. Any story where a child misuses a gun is front page material.

View every shooting as an event to be exploited. Always include
emotional quotes from the victim's family if possible. If they are
not available, the perpetrator's family will do nicely. The quote
must blame the tragedy on the availability of guns. Photos or video
of grieving family members are worth a thousand facts. Most people
will accept the assertion that guns cause crime. It is much easier
than believing that some people deliberately choose to harm others.

Your story should include terms like "tragic" or "preventable" and
mention the current toll of gun violence in your city or state. Good
reporters always know exactly how many gun deaths have occurred in
their area since the first of the year. List two or three previous
incidents of gun violence to give the impression of a continuing crime
wave.

Little space should be devoted to shootings where criminals kill each
other. Although these deaths greatly inflate the annual gun violence
numbers, they distract from the basic mission of urging law abiding
citizens to give up their guns. Do not dig too deeply into the
reasons behind shootings. The fact that a gun was involved is the
major point, unless someone under 18 is affected, in which case the
child angle is now of equal importance.

Any article about gun violence should include quotes from anti-gun
organizations or politicians. One quote should say that we must do
something "for the children." Anti-gun spokespersons should be called
"activists" or "advocates." If your employer wishes to appear
unbiased, you can include one token quote from a gun lobby group to
show that you are being fair. The anti-gun statements should be
accepted as fact. The gun lobby statement can be denigrated by
including text like, "according to gun lobbyist Jones."

Fortunately, statements from anti-gun organizations come in short
sound bites that are perfect for generating an emotional response in
the reader or viewer. Gun lobby statements usually contain boring
facts that are easy to ignore.

Feel secure in your advocacy journalism. The vast majority of your
fellow Journalists support your activism. The nation will be a better
place when only the police and military have guns. Remember that you
are doing it for the children so the end justifies the means.

Eventually, the government will have a monopoly on power. Don't worry
about the right to freedom of the press, just contact me then for
more helpful hints.

Professor Michael Brown
School of Journalism, Brady Chair
Vancouver College of Liberal Arts

Political Satire, copyright 1999, Michael Brown.
May be reproduced freely in its full and complete form.
The author may be contacted at mb@e-z.net

 

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