SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS
"ETHICS WEEK"

Just How Ethical Are We?

Are Serious Ethical Breeches Ignored?

Additional ideas for Ethics Week

March 2, 2005

Dear Mr. Gratz, (President of the Society of Professional Journalists)

I enjoyed your column in the Jan.-Feb 2005 issue of The Quill, on diverse messages and ethics in the media.

It is increasingly difficult however for me to accept SPJ's apparently overarching concern about ethics and accuracy, when grotesque distortion is routine and accepted in news media nationwide. I'm referring specifically to the gun issue.

Like it or hate it, the gun issue is enormous. Half of all American homes are estimated to have at least one gun. Yet most reporters I know hate guns, don't own guns, and have never actually even fired a gun. They seem terrified of guns, in an almost hoplophobic* way. This shows in news coverage everywhere. They're entitled to hate, I make no complaint about that, but when it controls their ethics, accuracy or the diversity of the stories the public gets to see, it is unacceptable.

"The Bias Against Guns" by Dr. John Lott carefully documents the outrageously biased coverage (simply the latest of many studies that uncover the same situation)*. I don't think many reporters have even heard basic facts like guns save lives, guns stop crime, and guns are why America is still free, much less report on such things.

Among nine other books, I wrote the unabridged guide to federal gun law, Gun Laws of America. Mainstream news stories on this subject are so far from accurate it's embarrassing. The AP once reported that Congress hadn't passed a gun bill in five years, when federal gun law had increased 25% during that period. No amount of effort could generate a correction (very typical of all gun-story errors). Reporters comment on bills without reading them (commonly known), get the facts completely wrong, and typically present anti-rights groups as heroes and pro-rights groups as heathens.

Along with being the current president of the Society of Professional Journalists, I see you work for PBS in Maine. A local PBS official here in Arizona said to me, "We only run hit pieces on guns," in explaining why an important story about self-defense cases had been quashed by the brass in D.C., after it was produced and ready to air. Anyone who listens to PBS knows this is true.

Will SPJ ever confront this hypocrisy? Or will we simply continue to get high-minded articles that ignore such a rotten underbelly on such a fundamental issue?

With gun-rights coverage so abysmal, it makes one wonder how well other subjects fare, and how attentive SPJ really is to diverse views, accuracy and ethics. It also perhaps squarely addresses why the media is held in such low esteem by a significant portion of the public, who increasingly seem to believe, "If it's in the news, it's probably wrong." That, I can attest, is absolutely true of gun-news coverage.

We ignore this issue at our peril.

Sincerely,
Alan Korwin, Author
Gun Laws of America

 

*HOP-luh-fobia, n. Morbid fear of weapons. hoplophobic, hoplophobe.

*For example, Lott reports that in 2001, USA Today ran 5,660 words on gun crimes and zero words on "DGUs" (defensive gun uses); The New York Times ran 50,745 words about gun crime and a single 163-word story about an off-duty police officer who used his gun to prevent a crime; The Washington Post in that time period balanced its 46,884 words on gun crime with 2 percent, or 953 words, on defensive use. The three networks combined (ABC, CBS, NBC) ran 190,000 words on gun crime and not a single word on self defense. Not a single word! If you consume news, you know criminal misuse of guns is prevalent, and decent use of guns is simply absent. This compares with 13 scholarly studies that find at least hundreds of thousands of DGUs annually, with the most commonly cited figure of 2.5 million DGUs per year. By what mechanism does the media attain such stunning miscoverage?

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March 9, 2005

Dear Mr. Gratz,

I hadn't heard back so I thought I'd followup.*

I wanted to get in touch with SPJ Ethics Committee co-chairman Fred Brown, but there doesn't seem to be a way to reach him in the magazine. Perhaps you could forward these concerns to him for me.

If the figures below are true, then bias and unethical reporting are as robustly documented as you could ever wish. And no one challenges the numbers from this Ph.D.'s work.

But you don't need a study because you consume news yourself -- and you know you see a constant flow of stories about misuse of guns, and no stories, basically ever, about the good side of guns. For most journalists, that phrase -- the good side of guns -- is anathema. They can't even comprehend it. They've certainly never written anything like that, wouldn't even know how to. Guns are so evil and filthy, how could you cover such a thing?

The thought of getting together with someone you know and going to the range a few times this month, to get some story ideas, is an alien concept, right? You may have never done something as simple as fired a gun in your life. I know from experience that some newspeople reading this would never want to, because you truly hate guns and wish they would all go away. Now there's a diverse approach to the subject.

The only purpose for a range is a place to go to get some background footage of "guns going off" to dramatize some gun story, the slant of which we don't have to guess.

Can you, personally, come up with ten good ideas for stories about guns that have the same chipper attitude as stories about new cars, street festivals or restaurants? How about a deeper set of pieces that examine, say, if guns really are why America is still free? Have you ever, in all your objective, two-sided ethically alert awareness, seen these stories at your firm? Why not?

This belongs in a discussion of ethics during upcoming Ethics Week.

Sincerely,

Alan Korwin, Author
Gun Laws of America

*For example, Lott reports that in 2001, USA Today ran 5,660 words on gun crimes and zero words on "DGUs" (defensive gun uses); The New York Times ran 50,745 words about gun crime and a single 163-word story about an off-duty police officer who used his gun to prevent a crime; The Washington Post in that time period balanced its 46,884 words on gun crime with 2 percent, or 953 words, on defensive use. The three networks combined (ABC, CBS, NBC) ran 190,000 words on gun crime and not a single word on self defense. Not a single word! If you consume news, you know criminal misuse of guns is prevalent, and decent use of guns is simply absent. This compares with 13 scholarly studies that find at least hundreds of thousands of DGUs annually, with the most commonly cited figure of 2.5 million DGUs per year. By what mechanism does the media attain such stunning miscoverage?

--

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