Cable news covered Santa Clarita shooting for nearly 12 hours -- less than one hour was focused on gun policy

All three cable news networks covered last week's school shooting in Santa Clarita, California, for nearly 12 hours combined, but the majority of that coverage was focused on breaking news reports. Gun policy solutions were discussed for just 50 minutes in total. 

On November 14, a 16-year-old student pulled a .45-caliber pistol from his backpack and opened fire “in the quad area of Saugus High School” in Santa Clarita, “killing two students and wounding three others, before shooting himself in the head.” There was some initial confusion about whether the shooter had fled the campus, before police reported that the entire shooting had unfolded in 16 seconds and the suspected perpetrator was hospitalized in grave condition. The shooter died the following morning. 

From when news of the shooting broke, around 11 a.m. EST on November 14, until midnight on November 18, cable news networks covered the story for nearly 12 hours. CNN spent just over 4 hours on the shooting, while Fox covered it for nearly 3 hours and 45 minutes and MSNBC for just over 4 hours.

Cable news coverage of Santa Clarita school shooting

Throughout their coverage, CNN and MSNBC spent a little under 39 minutes and 12 minutes, respectively, on discussions about policies addressing future gun violence. Some of this coverage actually gave credence to conservative-leaning, evidence-free claims, such as the argument that all gun safety laws are useless because California’s gun safety laws did not stop the shooting. Fox News spent no time discussing solutions and reported only breaking news updates.

In the hours following the shooting, MSNBC spoke to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) about his 2020 gun safety platform, which includes proposals for gun licensing and one-handgun-a-month rules, and how he would plan to implement it with a potentially split Congress.

That night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper spoke to gun safety advocate Sandy Phillips about the trauma that gun violence survivors go through -- including PTSD -- and the resources available for the “long-term welfare” of survivors.

During the November 15 edition of CNN’s New Day, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe talked to host John Berman about the “burden that the FBI carries in … conducting the background check process,” including the “very limited period of three days that the bureau has” to complete those checks. (Background checks that are not completed within three business days are allowed to automatically proceed because of language the National Rifle Association was able to insert into the federal background check law.) McCabe acknowledged there isn’t one singular law that will prevent all school shootings, but said, “Everything that we can possibly do to potentially limit those tragedies, to possibly stop the next one, those are responsible steps that we should be taking to make sure that people are safe”:

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Citation From the November 15, 2019, edition of CNN's New Day

JOHN BERMAN (HOST): I want to bring in Andy McCabe, a former deputy director of the FBI and a CNN contributor. And Andy, I think one of the things that's most interesting about you, and people may not know this in light of everything else that you've been connected to over the last year, you worked very closely with the people running the background checks. 


BERMAN: And gun violence is absolutely in your portfolio. So when you see something like what happened in California, what's interesting here is this was a handgun. This was a pistol, you know, six rounds fired -- not an assault weapon. No one is going to ban handguns, those aren't under any discussions there. So when you talk about what the laws could do to prevent something like this, what's the answer?     

MCCABE: Well, it's hard to overstate the enormity of the burden that the FBI carries in essentially conducting the background check process. The bureau conducts the background checks for most states. And it is a volume that they struggle to stay on top of day after day. The highest volume days are typically the day after Thanksgiving where the FBI will process close to 200,000 background checks in a day. There are a few things that Congress can do I think relatively easy, inexpensive, and noncontroversial things they can do to make those background checks more effective. The first is one of the prohibiting factors, so one of the things that would prohibit a sale to you of a firearm is if when the bureau checks your name, they find out that there is a warrant for your arrest in some jurisdiction. There is a fugitive prohibitor for many, many years the FBI interpreted that as if there's a warrant for you, you are a fugitive and therefore cannot purchase the weapon. The Department of Justice reevaluated the definition of fugitive in 2017 and essentially imposed a much greater requirement on the FBI to essentially determine why and where you were a fugitive from. This is work that is very hard to do in the very limited period of three days that the bureau has to do those -- to conduct that check. 

BERMAN: And one of the things you will hear gun supporters say is, "Well, there isn't a law that would stop this shooting." And in California, that may very well be the case. 

MCCABE: In many cases, yes. 

BERMAN: But it may be the wrong question. It's not that one law can stop every school shooting. Correct? 

MCCABE: Well, that's absolutely right. Look, we have an absolute epidemic of gun tragedy in this country. And I think everything that we can possibly do to potentially limit those tragedies, to possibly stop the next one, those are responsible steps that we should be taking to make sure that people are safe.    

On November 18, following coverage of a vigil held for the Santa Clarita victims, MSNBC aired a package about teachers -- some of whom “had never even picked up a gun” -- learning to shoot in order to carry a firearm in class.

Mainstream media have routinely struggled to present an accurate picture of gun violence in the U.S. Though high-casualty mass shootings make up only about 1% of all gun violence, they receive the bulk of media attention while gun violence impacting communities of color -- or sometimes even low-casualty mass shootings -- fail to break through.

This problem was no more evident than in the coverage after the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017 that left 59 dead and more than 500 injured. Only 19% of the coverage even mentioned gun policy and solutions, and the majority of individuals quoted or hosted by media were Republican politicians who (with the exception of one) had received money from the NRA. This type of inadequate coverage creates a pipeline between pro-gun outlets and mainstream media which allows for NRA talking points -- such as the claim that that any gun safety laws are a slippery slope toward confiscation -- to reach a wider audience.

The coverage of the Santa Clarita shooting by cable news outlets shows there's a great amount of interest in covering the spectacle of high-profile shootings but less interest in deeper discussions about the contexts in which shootings occur and the interplay between gun regulations and gun violence generally. California state gun laws include universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, permit-to-purchase laws, one-handgun-a-month laws, and a mandatory 10-day waiting period “prior to the sale or transfer of a firearm.” Over the 20 years that these laws have been implemented, California cut its gun deaths in half and currently ranks 44th out of 50 states for firearm deaths.

Bills to implement universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and to prevent those convicted of hate crimes from purchasing a gun are all currently sitting in Congress. While it is certainly reasonable to devote significant breaking news coverage to high-profile shooting incidents, outlets should also consider devoting similarly significant coverage to discussing the implementation and impact of these types of gun safety laws, which aim to raise the standards for gun ownership in the U.S.


Media Matters searched the SnapStream database for any of the terms “gun,” “shot,” “pistol,” or any variation of “shoot” or “kill” within close proximity of any of the terms “California,” “Santa Clarita,” “Saugus,” or “Los Angeles” in original cable news programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC between 4 a.m. to midnight from November 14 through November 18, 2019. We timed all mentions of the shooting, including teasers, headlines, passing mentions, interview questions, breaking news, and full segments.