For over two decades, media outlets have exhibited a problematic pattern when reporting on gun violence by often opting for sensationalized coverage rather than substantive journalism. In the aftermath of the two recent high-casualty mass shootings that have renewed calls for legislation preventing gun violence, media outlets can do their part by pledging to offer honest, informed, and sensitive coverage while avoiding all-too-common mistakes.
On May 14, an 18-year-old gunman allegedly opened fire in a grocery store in a predominantly Black community in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 and injuring three people. The alleged shooter reportedly studied previous hate attacks and shootings before he carried out the massacre with a legally purchased assault weapon. Less than a week later, on May 24, another 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde, Texas, allegedly shot his grandmother with a legally purchased assault weapon and went to Robb Elementary School, where he fatally shot 19 children and two teachers.
The massacres renewed calls for a host of federal gun violence prevention laws from Democratic politicians — universal background checks, assault weapons bans, extreme risk protection orders, and safe storage laws. Various other public figures also called on the government to take action to curb the violence.
But while the recent mass shootings undoubtedly demand a response from politicians and advocates, it is also important for media outlets covering these shootings to place them in the larger context of gun violence in America.
But mass shootings make up less than 1% of all gun deaths in the country. Every single day, an average of 111 people in the U.S. are fatally shot — five of them children — and another 210 are injured. These fatalities include 65 gun suicides a day. About 41,000 people die from a gunshot wound every year and gun deaths reached an all-time high in 2020. There were more than 393 million civilian owned-firearms in the country as of 2018, very little federal regulation, and in the U.S. gunshot wounds are now the leading cause of death among children in the United States.
Gun violence is undoubtedly a public health crisis, but media outlets still struggle in their coverage. Outlets repeatedly choose to focus on the least common type of gun violence and on the small minority of people who don’t support any regulation while mostly ignoring stories of states that have successfully implemented gun violence prevention laws, giving viewers an upside-down view of the crisis. It is imperative that media consider the following guidelines in order to give people an accurate look at the violence, the weapons used, and the solutions:
Beware of adopting the National Rifle Association’s framing
The National Rifle Association has spent decades permeating the American media with misinformation about the causes of gun violence and the potential solutions. The organization created the myth that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and trots it out after every massacre. Its officials and now-defunct media arm have falsely blamed so-called “gun-free zones” for mass shootings, dismissed the effect that guns have on suicides (which make up almost two-thirds of all gun deaths), and spread lies about the effects of proposed gun legislation.
These talking points have previously trickled into mainstream media’s coverage of gun safety legislation.
During a 2019 Democratic primary debate, NBC moderator Chuck Todd took a page from the NRA’s playbook when he asked then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke how he’d respond to voters who are scared he’s going to “take” their “guns away.” Todd aimed the same line of questioning at then-presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), asking if the federal government should confiscate guns.
The morning before the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate in 2019, CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota grilled O’Rourke about his proposal for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, questioning whether gun owners would comply and whether it amounted to confiscation. During the debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper repeatedly asked O’Rourke how he would enforce his assault weapons ban and if law enforcement would take people’s weapons from them under his administration.
While it’s easy to call out misleading narratives when they come directly from the NRA, journalists should also be careful not to adopt the organization’s framing when covering gun violence. In fact, it’s best to ignore the NRA altogether. The organization, which is drowning in legal and financial issues, has long been a paper tiger, and giving it oxygen only helps to rehabilitate its reputation.
Focus on details of legislation and the weapons themselves, rather than sensationalization
Part of giving audiences an accurate look at gun violence is reporting on the details of proposed legislation and the weapons themselves. Semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 are often the weapon of choice for mass shooters. But outlets rarely discuss why.
The muzzle velocity of bullets from these weapons is up to four times greater than those fired from a handgun, making them much more lethal. The higher the velocity on impact, the more damage the bullet causes to the body’s internal organs and tissue. In fact, the damage from a high-velocity bullet from an AR-15 is so great that a shooter “does not have to be particularly accurate” to cause fatalities, with each shot creating “a swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path.”
In addition to demands for an assault weapons ban following the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, there were also calls to implement extreme risk protection orders (commonly referred to as “red flag” laws), which allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed a danger to themselves or others. While these laws are often falsely framed as an infringement on due process by conservative figures, media outlets would do well to give their audience a basic understanding of what’s being proposed. Only certain people — typically only immediate family or household members and law enforcement — can petition for an extreme risk protection order, and the evidence presented has to reach the required legal standard of proof before the court will act. In the case of an ex parte order issued in urgent scenarios without the respondent’s knowledge, the firearms are returned after a formal hearing if the petitioners can’t make the case that the order should be extended.
It is necessary for media outlets to include this type of context in their coverage of all proposed federal gun safety laws to counter nefarious messaging from pro-gun characters and right-wing media personalities who tend to flood the void with false and sensationalized narratives.
Cover gun violence like the public health crisis that it is
As horrific and unfathomable as mass shootings are, they still account for less than 1% of all gun deaths in the United States.
Every day, there’s gun violence in the form of suicides, domestic violence, and unintentional shootings. An average of eight children are unintentionally shot every day with an improperly stored or misused firearm, and every month an average of 70 women are fatally shot by an abusive partner. Yet time and again, media outlets fail to put the violence in context and instead give lopsided coverage to mass shootings with high fatalities -- which they still frame as individual episodes without connecting them to everyday incidents of gun violence around the country.
In reality, this public health epidemic exists 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.
And this public health crisis doesn’t end once the crime scene has been cleared, so neither should the media’s coverage. Survivors of gun violence and their families deal with a lifetime of trauma, not to mention what can be debilitating medical bills.
Covering gun violence thematically doesn’t include discussing just institutional and systemic shortcomings that led to the violence, but also their effect after the trigger has been pulled.
Don’t profile mass shooters, as it motivates the next one
Researchers have said the intense coverage of mass shootings is why such shootings often occur in clusters. As of 2019, the 1999 Columbine shooting — which received a lot of media coverage — had influenced more than 100 other plots and attacks, according to Mother Jones. Many would-be mass shooters hailed the Columbine gunmen as “heroes” or “martyrs,” and some attempted to outdo their body count.
A 2015 research study found that up to 30% of mass shootings are set off by other attacks, and a 2016 paper presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference noted that one of the most common traits of mass shooters is “pathological narcissism.”
Despite the repeated evidence, some media outlets have continued to ignore this advice, including when covering the Brooklyn, New York, subway shooting in April. Later that same month, a gunman shot at a school in Washington, D.C., and police later discovered that he may have taken some inspiration from the subway shooting and a 2018 Florida school shooting.
We know what works to reduce gun violence. Media should cover it.
Many of the gun violence prevention laws proposed federally have been enacted in some states. Media outlets need to cover their effect locally in order to give their audience some context about the likely effect of these laws if passed in Congress.
While some states, including Arkansas and Alabama, have nearly no gun safety laws, 14 states and Washington, D.C., require universal background checks. Nine states, including Maryland, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, have what are called “permit to purchase” laws, which require gun owners to obtain a license before purchasing certain or all firearms.
After passing its licensing law, Connecticut saw a 28% decrease in gun homicides and a 33% decrease in gun suicides. When Missouri repealed its gun licensing law, however, the state saw a 47% increase in gun homicides and a 24% increase in gun suicides.
Currently, 19 states and D.C. have some form of extreme risk protection orders on the books. After Connecticut and Indiana passed extreme risk protection order laws, their gun suicide rates dropped by 14% and 7.5%, respectively.
More broadly, states with weaker gun laws have higher gun homicide and suicide rates.
There are many reasons why the gun violence epidemic is as bad as it is in the U.S., and the media have an essential journalistic duty to accurately cover all of the wide-reaching effects and potential solutions to this crisis.