CNN Adopts Flawed Right-Wing Logic On School Shooting Numbers

CNN is adopting flawed right-wing media logic that seeks to downplay the numbers of school shootings in the last 18 months.

Following an incident at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon where a 15-year-old student armed with an AR-15 assault weapon and a handgun killed a fellow student before taking his own life, gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety circulated a graphic that identified the locations of 74 school shootings since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School:

How Everytown reached the 74 school shooting figure is no mystery. On its website, the gun safety group clearly explains its methodology: “Incidents were classified as school shootings when a firearm was discharged inside a school building or on school or campus grounds, as documented in publicly reported news accounts. This includes assaults, homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings.”

The right-wing media has sought to debunk this statistic in order to downplay the prevalence of school shootings. Criticism of Everytown's graphic began on June 10 with a lengthy series of tweets from conservative journalist Charles C. Johnson that purported to debunk many of the 74 shootings as “fake shooting[s].”

Shootings that Johnson believed had been mischaracterized as school shootings included incidents where, in his own words, “A gunman ran onto campus, was chased by police, shot student accidentally,” “Honors student shoots self in front of class,” and, “Northwest High School principal shot by her ex-husband on campus”:

According to Johnson, “It's not a school shooting when someone goes and shoots a specific person on campus. It's a shooting that happens to take place at school.”

Conservative media quickly adopted Johnson's argument that certain shootings that occur at school should not count when tallying “school shootings.” (Example: National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke: “Lying About School Shootings”)

The conservative media definition of a “school shooting” does not make a whole lot of sense. As The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman notes, adopting right-wing media logic on what constitutes a “school shooting” means “the message to parents concerned that there are loaded weapons going off on school property, and that their sons and daughters are at risk of being hit by bullets from those weapons, is this: it doesn't really count unless the shooter is a pupil, not involved in a gang, who made a pre-meditated plan to massacre a large number of students.”

Even so a June 11 article adopted this right-wing logic to question the Everytown statistic. noted that following the Oregon school shooting, “many media outlets, including CNN, reported that there have been 74 school shootings in the past 18 months,” before positing that the statistic warranted a “closer look.”

Despite explaining Everytown's methodology, CNN cast doubt on the statistic, noting the network found only 15 incidents since Newtown were truly “similar to the violence in Oregon”:

CNN determined that 15 of the incidents Everytown included were situations similar to the violence in Oregon -- a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school. That works out to about one shooting every five weeks.

Some of the other incidents on Everytown's list included personal arguments, accidents and alleged gang activities and drug deals.

CNN gave no explanation for why they felt that such incidents could not be accurately identified as “school shootings.” While CNN apparently only counts “a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school” as a “school shooting,” this seems to be a new definition. On January 20, reported on a “school shooting” that stemmed from an assault and was included on Everytown's list of 74 school shootings, but not among CNN's 15.

The network's “closer look” received favorable coverage from several conservative outlets.

Other outlets had little trouble understanding and reporting Everytown's statistic and methodology in a straightforward manner. As a Washington Post GovBeat blog post on the statistic headlined “Map: There have been at least 74 shootings at schools since Newtown” explained: “Everytown identifies a school shooting as any instance in which a firearm was discharged within a school building or on school grounds, sourced to multiple news reports per incident. Therefore, the data isn't limited to mass shootings like Newtown--it includes assaults, homicides, suicides and even accidental shootings.”