You might have expected bigger play for a news story reporting that gun homicides in the United States fell a whopping 39 percent between 1993 and 2011. That is one of the findings from a study released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. You can find the government study online here.
Seattle-area newspaper readers interested in gun rights could easily have overlooked the Seattle Times news story, which appeared low on an inside page. The Washington Post gave the story more prominent play, along with another story about a private study which showed an even bigger drop – 49 percent – in gun homicides.
Why didn’t we hear more about this report from news organizations?
Many in the pro-gun community would almost reflexively say that news reporters, editors, and broadcasters are consciously and deliberately engaged in suppressing news that might show guns in a favorable light. That’s not it, and I speak from my perspective as a former reporter and editor for a major Pacific Northwest daily newspaper. There is no conspiracy in the newsroom.
But there is abundant ignorance among journalists about firearms. Plus, the nature of their work demands that they classify, label, and pigeonhole people and objects for ease of reference. Thus does an ordinary person thrust into the spotlight of current events become an “activist,” or a “spokesperson.” Because news stories are exceedingly brief, there is no time or space to make nuanced distinctions. Lacking the opportunity to make nuanced distinctions in their stories, some journalists abandon the effort to understand the nuances themselves. A gun is a gun, although some are handguns, and further distinction is deemed unnecessary. Except, of course, to distinguish the fearsome “assault weapon.”
Since daily journalists must paint with a broad brush, they seek, find, and report the news which is dramatic, colorful, sensational, visceral, and outrageous. My fellow reporters and I were were always hunting for the story that would make an early-morning newspaper reader spew his coffee, slam his fist on the kitchen table, and shout to his wife, “Dammit Maggie, listen to this!”
No news story about a government agency’s statistical report will ever be a coffee-spitter. The slaughter of children and teachers in their neighborhood school . . . that’s going to play above the fold on Page A-1 and lead the evening news.
Occasionally journalists will give major play to a local story about a successful use of armed force in self defense. For example, the homeowner who shoots an intruder, or the pawnbroker who stops an armed robber. In contrast to stories about unjustifiable homicides, such accounts will never include a tally of such incidents. A murder story is likely to tell the reader: “Smith’s slaying is the seventh homicide in the city this year, compared with four homicides at this time last year.” Whereas the story of a justifiable self-defense shooting probably will not tell the reader that: “This is the third time in the last month that a homeowner in Pleasantville has used a firearm to stop an assailant.” Such stories are played strictly for color and drama, while murder stories tend to feature a solemn scorecard to give the news a bit more heft.
So why didn’t the government’s report make a bigger splash? Because it isn’t a racy, compelling story. Because to most people, including journalists, it probably feels statistically insignificant when compared to events like the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre and the Boston Marathon tragedy. And, finally, because this important story lacks the face of an involved human or a recognizable opinion leader who commands respect. Numbers alone will never get anyone’s attention.