[Ed: Dr. Brown has long been penning serious articles on serious subjects for DRGO. Since we pride ourselves on our journalistic acumen and ethics, we thought it worth sharing the principles followed by so many of our enlightened colleagues in mainstream media. Part 2 will follow.]
Author’s note: Much has changed since the original edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Gun Violence Coverage was published in the first year of this century. This edition updates the basic principles and makes them relevant to the news environment of 2016.
Please distribute only within the Journalism community.
Guns are a sad fact of life in American culture and are a major topic in modern journalism. As a Journalist, you have 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 American problem. The concepts discussed here apply both to broadcast and print media.
For the purposes of this Guide, our work is divided between routine stories about gun violence and the broader coverage of the political debate about gun control. They are both equally important. Let us first address the proper way to construct a news story involving common gun crimes.
Covering common Gun Violence stories
The purpose of routine gun crime coverage is to create the impression of a continuing, growing and terrifying tidal wave of gun violence. Your goal is to plant the fear of guns in the minds of ordinary people, fear for themselves and especially for their children. Let’s start with the basics.
The importance of terminology
The first and most critical principle to remember is that subtle use of terminology can covertly influence the reader or viewer. For example, when describing a gun crime, victims must be shot “by” a gun, not “with” a gun. This may seem like a small detail, but it helps establish the principle that guns are responsible for crime.
Mass shootings get most of our attention and we will discuss them shortly, but most shootings involve only one victim. This should not discourage a talented Journalist. There are ways to make even the smallest shooting incident serve the greater good by following these suggestions.
When telling the story, adjectives should always be chosen for maximum anti-gun effect.
When describing a gun, attach terms like “automatic,” “semi-automatic,” “large caliber,” “deadly,” “high powered,” or “powerful”. Small pistols can be called “cheap” or “concealable.” 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. While it normally applies to rifles, the term can be combined with any of the terms above. Any weapon can be used to assault someone, so you cannot be criticized for this usage. “Assault weapon” is one of our most effective emotional terms, use it often. However, when these weapons are used by police, they should be called “tactical rifles” or “patrol rifles”.
A brief visit to the website of a national anti-gun organization can provide you with a list of the latest talking points and terms like these old classics: “Saturday Night Specials”, “cop-killer bullets” and the criminal’s “weapon of choice”.
Whenever police confiscate guns, they also confiscate ammunition. You must include the number of rounds seized, since the number will seem large to those who know little about guns. You may simply call them “bullets” if that is appropriate for your audience. If possible, find a way to imply that each round could have resulted in a dead child if the police had not intervened. For example, “also seized were 200 bullets, more than were fired at Columbine.”
These days it is important to include the size of a gun’s magazine. If you don’t know, just call it a “high-capacity clip.” The type of ammunition used is fair game too. Hollow point bullets sound especially sinister. The term, “armor piercing” comes in handy too, don’t be afraid to use it.
When discussing laws that allow certain people to carry concealed weapons, call them “hidden guns” as it sounds a bit more sinister.
“Vigilantism” is a word you will find very useful. Technically, a vigilante is someone who goes out looking for criminals to confront, but you should apply the term to anyone who uses a gun in self-defense. It is important that this kind of behavior is marginalized and discouraged, so that the people become more dependent on the police.
Always use the term “shooting” instead of attack, massacre, mass murder, atrocity or similar terms.
Don’t worry about getting technical details right. You need not know anything about guns. Many a reporter has accidentally written about semi-automatic revolvers or committed other minor errors. Since most people get their gun knowledge from Hollywood, 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.
One detail that should be mentioned, but is too often overlooked, is the model of the gun used to kill someone. Get this information from the police and do an internet search for other crimes involving this model. This is how gun bans are born and you can be a part of it.
If you run across useful information about safe gun handling or how guns actually work, do not share it with the public. People fear and hate things they do not understand.
Broadcast news teams should have stock video on hand showing a machine gun firing on full automatic. Run this video while describing common semi-automatic guns 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, even if guns are not involved. Guns should be the symbol of crime.
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. (Note that this may soon change to “gunperson” as more women take part in mass shootings.)
Whenever drug dealers are arrested, guns are usually confiscated by the police – this is ripe for exploitation. 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” rather than drug dealers.
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. This is a good place to include a factoid from a gun safety group, e.g.: “You are 47 times more likely to be killed if you keep a gun in your house.”
Any story where a child misuses a gun or is the victim of a gun automatically becomes 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, not bad decisions or upbringing. 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 you must 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. To make this number larger, you should include accidents and suicides in this total, even if your story is about intentional homicide. List two or three of the most shocking recent incidents to give the impression of a continuing and expanding crime wave.
Any article about gun violence should include quotes from anti-gun organizations or politicians who are promoting their latest idea for the next new gun law. One quote should say that we must do something “for the children”. If a proposed gun law seems likely to be ineffective, use the old line, “If it saves only one life, it’s worth it.”
As you know, cities with the strictest gun control laws have the highest crime rates. If you work in one of these enlightened municipalities, it is critical that you blame all gun crime on weapons illegally transported from states with weak gun laws. You may embellish this concept by stating that most crime guns are purchased at gun shows in those states and flow in an “iron river” to your city. Include the fact that criminals are able to buy all sorts of weapons, including machine guns, at gun shows without any background checks.
Themes to avoid
Never question the effectiveness of gun control laws or proposals. Guns are evil and only good for killing, so removing guns from society by whatever means necessary can only be good. Do not discuss the fact that gun laws are often not enforced and do not mention that it takes men with guns to enforce them.
Common sense tells us that nobody ever uses guns for legitimate self-defense, especially women or children. You may occasionally run across stories where ordinary people defend themselves with a gun. These must be minimized or suppressed. One subtle method is to say that the defender had some sort of government training, ie: retired cop or ex-military, which makes their actions more acceptable.
In some cases, armed homeowners actually shoot criminals, but don’t be tempted to deviate from the standard narrative. In these cases, the criminal is now the victim and you should have quotes or video of his relatives saying what a “good boy” he was. The homeowner should be demonized if possible.
Be careful about criticizing the police for responding slowly to 911 calls for help. It is best if the public feels 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.
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.
One very disturbing current trend is the rise in mass shootings by Muslim terrorists. Not only does this make people buy more guns, it also casts doubt on the effectiveness of our common sense gun safety laws. You should take every opportunity to downplay these events and emphasize shootings carried out by white American men. While doing so, you must be very selective in reporting the political leanings of these men. Only right-wing, conservative beliefs should be mentioned.
Never mention the copycat effect caused by media coverage or the fact that we essentially guarantee mass killers that they will be the most talked about person in the country for a few days. Just don’t go there. Mental illness is another factor that should be downplayed. To paraphrase an old saying, “it’s the guns, stupid.”
An important factor in our favor
If you consider the size of the U.S. population, the number of gun deaths is not that impressive, especially when viewed alongside other causes of death such as cancer, heart disease, medical mistakes and others. But when a shooting story makes the national news, its effect is greatly magnified in the public consciousness. To the individual viewer or reader, it will seem like the event took place near them. The accretive effect of the national media also means that people can be bombarded with story after story about gun violence. This serves our goal of creating fear of guns. If a modest shooting happens in your city, do your best to get it onto the national wire services or cable news networks.
To be continued . . .
—Dr. Michael S. Brown is a pragmatic Libertarian environmentalist who has been studying the gun debate for three decades and considers it a fascinating way to learn about human nature and politics.