Cable news coverage of the Rust shooting proves networks can cover gun violence substantively

Cable news covered a fatal shooting on the movie set for Rust for nearly 9 hours in the first two days, despite giving previous gun violence incidents minimal coverage.

On October 21, actor Alec Baldwin unintentionally injured the director of Rust and killed the cinematographer when he used a revolver to rehearse a scene in the movie. Baldwin, who is starring in and producing the movie, had been told the gun was “cold” -- meaning there was no projectile, just “a dummy round that contained no gunpowder.” Just hours before the shooting, six members of the camera crew had walked off the set over long hours, delayed paychecks, and unsafe work conditions, and there had been at least two accidental discharges on set five days prior to the fatal shooting.    

During an October 27 press conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the film’s shooting location), the police said 500 rounds of ammunition were recovered from the set.    

In the two days after the shooting, from October 21 through 23, the three cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News) covered the incident for over 9 hours in total. MSNBC covered it for two 2 hours and 17 minutes, CNN for 4 hours and 32 minutes, and Fox News for 2 hours and 12 minutes.   

Of the 9 hours of coverage, just under 3 hours were devoted to safety-oriented discussions. For the purposes of this study, Media Matters is defining safety-oriented discussion as coverage about safety protocols on movie sets in general, interviews with prop masters and armorers, explanations of the different uses for prop guns and live guns, and demonstrations of the differences between blank rounds and live rounds. MSNBC, CNN and Fox News gave 1 hour, 1 hour and 22 minutes, and 26 minutes of coverage to this safety-oriented content, respectively. 

This is a stark departure from the type of coverage cable news typically devotes to gun violence. Even though mass shootings make up only 1% of annual U.S. shooting deaths, cable news networks predominantly focus their gun violence coverage on these incidents. But even then, these networks have given minimal coverage to some of the mass shootings they have reported on the years, covering a 2018 Kentucky school shooting that left two dead and 18 injured for just 16 minutes, and a 2019 University of North Carolina at Charlotte school shooting that killed two and injured four for less than 43 minutes. 

When cable news has managed to cover mass shootings for a substantial amount of time, the majority of that coverage was breaking news. In the four days following the 2019 Santa Clarita, California, high school shooting, cable news covered it for nearly 12 hours -- but less than one hour of that was focused on gun policy. After the March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, cable news covered the massacre for nearly 13 hours, with only four mentions of gun violence as an epidemic.

The shooting on the set of Rust is an example of what’s called an unintentional shooting, “an injury or death that was not caused purposely,” according to the Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence. This type of shooting kills one person every day in the United States and injures 90. Of that number, eight are children and teenagers.   

Every day in the United States, 316 people are shot, out of which 106 die. Sixty-four of those fatal shootings are gun suicides. Twenty-two of those shot are under the age of 18, and five of them die. Every month, an average of 57 women are fatally shot by intimate partners, and 1 million women alive today report being shot or shot at by an abusive partner. In 2021 alone, there have been 616 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot).  

Nonetheless, cable news coverage of the Rust shooting shows networks clearly can devote substantial amounts of time to discussing what allows this type of violence to occur and how to prevent it. They just don’t do so for any of the thousands of shootings every year that don't involve well-known actors.   


Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “gun violence,” “shot,” or “death” or any variation of any of the terms “shoot,” “wound,” “kill,” or “injure” within close proximity of any of the terms “New Mexico,” “Rust,” “Hutchins,” “Baldwin,” or “Souza” from October 21 through 23, 2021.

We timed segments, which we defined as instances when the Rust shooting was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of the Rust shooting. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the shooting with one another. We also timed mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker discussed the shooting without another speaker engaging with the comment, and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about the shooting scheduled to air later in the broadcast. We rounded all times to the nearest minute.