Last year the Hope and Heal Fund in California gave some dough to a media research group at Berkeley to look at how gun violence is discussed in the everyday media venues that most people view or read. With all due respect to my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) public health research community, academic papers, particularly papers filled with data, statistics and charts, don’t get very far out into the average person’s daily life. The immense value of this report, on the other hand, is summed up by the report’s authors themselves who say, “the public’s understanding is significantly influenced by print, broadcast, and social media. Journalists set the agenda for the public debate about any issue by deciding which incidents they report (or don’t report) and how they choose to frame these.”
To this end, the report looked at just about every news and opinion piece on gun violence in 41 English and Spanish newspapers published in California between October 15, 2016 and October 14 of the following year. They identified 3,815 articles about gun violence, randomly chose 128 which grouped into articles on guns an community violence (111), guns and domestic violence (64) and guns and suicide (53). You can download the entire report here. What the Berkeley Media Studies Group found in a review of these articles and op-eds was that media coverage of this topic is most clearly driven by mass shooting events; when the Las Vegas shooting occurred on October 1, 2017 news stories that were running between 50 and 100 each day during the previous month spiked to over 300 stories on October 2nd and remained above 150 per day for the following week.
The second most common driver of media interest in gun violence is not, as you might suspect, the shooting event itself, but “because of an event in the criminal justice system, such as an arrest, a trial, or the discovery of a body by police.” This is a very significant finding because I always assumed that coverage of gun violence reflected the ‘when it bleeds it leads’ cliché which is always banded about. Not true, according to this report, with events in the criminal justice system representing the ‘trigger’ for community violence reports at least 80% of the time.
The researchers also divided an analysis of each article’ content into what they call ‘episodic’ on the one hand, ‘thematic’ on the other; the former representing a clear majority of all gun-violence reportage, the latter substantially less. What this means is that most of the gun-violence stories focus on the specifics of the event itself, whereas thematic (i.e., in-depth background discussions) are few and far between. The lack of context was, if anything, more noticeable in the Spanish-language press, whose stories focused almost entirely on describing specific events with little or no interest in explaining why something like gun violence occurs.
Because the media feels more comfortable talking about the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ of gun violence, the whole issue of how gun violence affects the broader community beyond the individuals involved in a specific act is rarely discussed or even mentioned as a media concern. Ditto the degree to which the gun industry comes in for any coverage about how its products and marketing may contribute to the illegal and/or inappropriate use of guns.
I have just given you the tip of the iceberg – the report is substantive, important and really needs to be read. The fact that a majority of Americans believe that a gun in the home is more of a benefit than a risk needs to be acknowledged and understood by the people and organizations who would like to see an end to the violence caused by guns.
This paper is an significant and necessary contribution to helping the gun-control community figure out how to effectively frame their narratives about gun violence. I hope it will be read by all.