An oldie from the archives. If it is not true, it should be true!!
The Journalist’s Guide To Gun Violence Coverage
Dr. Michael S. 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 or viewer. 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. One or more of these terms can describe almost any gun. 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 knows exactly what an assault weapon is, so you cannot be criticized for this usage.
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 story is much more important than the factual details, since people are more easily influenced through their emotions than through logic. Ironically, this provides cover in case you are accused of bias. You can always say that you were just trying to make the story more dramatic to increase reader or viewer interest.
Broadcast Journalists should have a file tape showing a machine gun firing on full automatic. Run this video while describing semi-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. The term shooter was once a positive term associated with shooting sports. This is changing.
We now use it to describe a gunman who has actually fired one or more shots.
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.
Obviously, the drug dealers who had the guns should now be called gunmen.
Include the number of rounds of ammunition seized, since the number will seem large to those who know little about guns. Readers will subconsciously think that each confiscated bullet represents one life saved. It is not necessary to say this explicitly.
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 must cast them as sociopaths. If using video, interview the most unattractive and least articulate individual. Do not select a woman or ethnic minority. It is important that people see gun ownership as a white male affliction. Try to solicit comments that can be taken out of context to show the gun nuts 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.
You may occasionally run across stories about successful armed self-defense that are emotionally appealing, even heart-wrenching. These must be minimized or suppressed.
Stories like this occasionally appear in local media, but are always spiked by the networks and wire services before they spread. You can assist this effort by notifying the appropriate editor if you discover one of these stories in your local market.
If you feel that you must cover a successful armed self-defense incident, you must completely avoid any hint that citizens can rely on guns for protection. Your local appointed police chief can usually be relied on to provide a quote to that effect. Elected sheriffs are less reliable, but worth a try.
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 belongs on the front page.
Schools have proven to be a wonderful source of emotional anti-gun material. Be prepared to swing into action at the slightest hint of a gun in or near a school. Your coverage must include the fear-producing word Columbine as many times as possible.
School situations can be described with many excellent terms as in this example: “The terrified children were held in lockdown for hours as SWAT teams armed with powerful assault weapons searched the campus for the mystery gunman”.
Don’t forget to cover the frantic parents as they arrive at the school to pick up their children. This is every parent’s worst nightmare and we must use the opportunity to press his or her emotional hot buttons.
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 21 is killed, in which case the child angle is now of equal importance. Even if the deceased youth is a vicious gang member, he must be portrayed as a good child who fell under the influence of the gun culture.
Any article about gun violence should include several quotes from anti-gun organizations. One quote should say that we must do something for the children. Anti-gun spokespersons should be called activists or advocates. If your editor 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 extremely short sound bites that are perfect for generating an emotional response in the reader or viewer. If you are not familiar with the terms in current use, anti-gun organizations like the Violence Policy Center can provide you with a list of the latest terms including: junk guns, Saturday Night Special, sniper rifle, and Tupperware parties for criminals.
Never question an anti-gun sound bite or label, even if you think it is misleading. That is the point. They have been carefully crafted by marketing experts who know what is best for the movement. Your job is to repeat them as often as possible.
The term gun show loophole is a perfect example of a powerful and successful label. Even though sales at gun shows must follow the same laws as sales elsewhere, loophole strongly implies a special exemption. By working together we have convinced voters that gun shows are free trade zones where sinister arms dealers sell machine guns to children and criminals. As long as we can maintain the public’s misperception of this issue, we can use this powerful tool indefinitely.
You must never attend any workshops or seminars where Journalists learn about guns at a real shooting range and interact with well-informed gun owners. Reports indicate an extremely high rate of defections among journalists who attend such events. This confirms the evil influence that guns have on even the finest individuals.
If you must participate in a gun-training event, try to choose one conducted by a big city police department controlled by a liberal mayor. That way you are less likely to be exposed to improper thoughts.
Feel secure in your advocacy journalism. Surveys prove the vast majority of your fellow Journalists support your activism. Your goal should be to emulate or surpass the broadcast television networks, which in some cases have achieved a ratio of ten anti-gun stories to each pro-gun story.
The nation will be a better place when only the police and military have guns. Always 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
Vancouver College of Liberal Arts
The author wishes to thank the Violence Policy Center for their brilliant and invaluable contributions to our Journalist’s Crusade to End Gun Violence.
Political Satire, copyright 1999-2001, Dr. Michael S. Brown.
May be reproduced freely in its full and complete form.
The author may be contacted at email@example.com.