Cable news fails to cover gun violence like the public health crisis it is

In 13 hours of coverage about the Atlanta shootings, there were only four mentions of gun violence as an epidemic

Gun violence is a public health crisis that kills around 40,000 Americans every year, yet cable news routinely treats shootings like isolated incidents and fails to put the violence in broader, substantive context. In the 48 hours after the Atlanta spas mass shooting in March, the three major national cable news networks -- MSNBC, CNN, and Fox -- covered the shootings for nearly 13 hours. But gun violence as a national epidemic was mentioned only four times in the coverage.  

Each day in the United States, 316 people are shot, out of which 106 die. Of that, 22 people shot are under the age of 18, and five of them die. Sixty-four of those fatal shootings are gun suicides. Every month, an average of 53 women are fatally shot by their partners and 1 million women alive today report being shot or shot at by an abusive partner. In 2021 alone, there have been 143 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot).  

This public health epidemic lingers in part because of underinvestment in marginalized communities, inadequate access to mental health resources, and a nationwide patchwork of some of the loosest gun laws among high-income countries that create easy access to firearms. Yet this systemic context is almost never mentioned in cable news coverage of gun violence. 

In the 48 hours after a series of shootings on March 16 at three Atlanta area spas which left eight dead, including six Asian women, major cable news networks covered the story for a total of nearly 13 hours; CNN for just over seven hours, MSNBC for nearly five, and Fox News for just over one. Within that coverage, there were four mentions of gun violence in the broader context. One was on CNN in which a correspondent quoted former President Barack Obama’s tweet calling gun violence an “epidemic.” The other three mentions were by the local police during live press briefing the outlets covered.  

A little more than 75% of the segments included necessary context about the rise in violence against Asian Americans, but much of the time devoted to breaking news updates. Due to the nature of an unfolding crisis, breaking news updates are often incomplete, relying on secondhand sources, and news consumers have been advised to take it with a “grain of salt.” The time devoted to that speculation would have been better spent discussing gun violence as a nationwide public health crisis.        

This phenomenon of cable news ignoring the broader context of gun violence as a public health epidemic is not new. Even though mass shootings -- public, high casualty mass shootings at that -- make up roughly 1% of all gun violence incidents, cable news coverage often centers around them, and very little of that coverage is a substantive discussion on the epidemic or how to solve it. In the four days after the 2019 Santa Clarita school shooting in which a 16-year-old student using a .45 caliber handgun fatally shot two students and wounded three others, cable news covered it for nearly 12 hours -- but less than an hour of that was focused on gun policy. In the weeks after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting which left 59 dead and over 500 injured, 82% of the 140 segments on corporate broadcast news were breaking news updates and only 19% of total coverage was oriented toward gun policy or solutions. 

While there has been a decline in gun violence for nearly three decades, 2019 saw an uptick in the number of people killed and 2020 marked the “deadliest gun violence year in decades.” Despite the steady decline, the number of gun deaths per capita in the U.S. is still eight times as high as Canada and over 100 times as high as the United Kingdom.   

Undoubtedly, 2020 was a chaotic year news-wise, but one thing was laid bare: Cable news can and has covered a public health crisis in a substantive way.

Video file

Citation From the February 22, 2021, edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom with Brianna Keilar 

While coverage of the coronavirus pandemic on CNN and MSNBC was not perfect, it gave viewers a look at the nationwide magnitude of the crisis, risks and long-term effects associated with the virus, and potential solutions. If the two networks can do that for coronavirus, why not for gun violence? (Fox, predictably, wasted its coverage trafficking conspiracy theories and casting doubt about the vaccines.) 

The media conversation about gun violence in America often frames the issue far differently than other public health crises. Cable news covered the broad generalities about COVID-19 that affect everyone -- number of deaths, testing, transmission rate, contact tracing, regulations and guidelines, vaccine availability -- as the main story and then produced human interest pieces that highlighted specific cases. With gun violence coverage, the specific incident is the story. The broader generalities that affect everyone, such as laws, the cost of gun violence, deaths per year, trauma, and root causes rarely make it into the coverage at all. 

This is caused, at least in part, by the mostly right-wing figures’ insistence that the media wait for the facts before mentioning any need for gun safety policy or the accusations that media is “ignoring” facts to push an agenda. This talking point inevitably morphs into the tired and incorrect assertion that no gun law would have stopped that specific shooting. And that means there’s never an appropriate time to mention gun violence solutions. 

Media absolutely should base their coverage of the facts with regards to a specific shooting. However, such coverage shouldn’t prevent them from discussing the broader context of gun violence in the United States. 


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” or “shot” or any variation of any of the terms “shoot,” “kill,” “murder,” “fatal,” or “wound” within close proximity of any of the terms “spa,” “parlor,” “massage,” “Atlanta,” or “Aaron Long” from March 16 through 18, 2021.

We included segments, which we defined as instances when the shooting was the stated topic of discussion or when two or more speakers in a multi-topic segment discussed the shooting with one another; passing mentions of the shooting, which we defined as instances when a single speaker mentioned the shooting without another speaker engaging with the comment; and teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted an upcoming segment on the shooting during the broadcast. We timed all relevant portions of the segments, mentions, and teasers we identified.

We then looked for substantive coverage, which we defined instances when any speaker in any segment, mention, or teaser discussed gun violence as a public health crisis or an epidemic, gun violence statistics, or gun policy. We also looked for whether any speaker in any segment, mention, or teaser discussed the larger context of the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.