Why Won't Press Put U.S. Gun Violence In Context?

Another unfolding American gun massacre has produced an  avalanche news coverage, but it's coverage that continues to omit crucial context about gun violence and the rash of often public shooting sprees that plague the country. It's a troubling journalism trend, and one that seems to be getting worse. As America recoils from new shootings, the news media are casting the gun horrors in less context, not more.

It's true that the press is moving away from presenting shooting sprees as isolated incidents. The coverage of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., has been rich with references to the Aurora, Colo., movie theater massacre from this summer. Then again, how can reporters not connect the dots from those two rampages to a sweeping cultural and criminal problem, and one that continues to worsen and extends to all corners of the country.

But simply acknowledging the deadly trend doesn't mean the news media are providing much-needed context. For instance, each year roughly 30,000 Americans die from gun violence. By comparison, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, approximately 4,300 Americans have died in that conflict.

As Forbes' Rob Waters noted, from the period between 2000 to 2009, “If you exclude natural causes of death and consider only deaths caused by injury, [gun violence] is the second-leading cause of death over that time span; only car accidents (417,000) killed more people.” And according to Bloomberg News, the number of Americans killed by guns will soon exceed the yearly number of auto fatalities, as auto-related deaths are falling and gun fatalities are rising.

To understand the larger story of gun violence in America, people have to understand the context. People have to be aware of the 30,000 figure. They ought to know, for instance, that that in the week since Newtown, an estimated 500 Americans have died from gunfire, and more than 1,200 have been wounded. They ought to know that just since the Sand Hook School massacre, approximately 50 more American children and teens have died from gunfire.

If we don't understand the saturation status we're not going to understand the steady stream of public shooting sprees.

But news consumers aren't getting that information from the media - at least not in the wake of the Newtown tragedy.

Very few mentions of the 30,000 statistic have appeared in newspaper articles or on television segments about the Connecticut massacre.  In fact, a Nexis search uncovers only two major newspaper news articles that referenced that key figure in the last week, one in the San Francisco Chronicle, on December 18, and one in the Hartford Courant December 19. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tampa Tribune and Indianapolis Star published references to the 30,000-death statistic in opinion pieces about the Newtown killings.)

On television, the references were just as rare: I found only four. One each on PBS, CNN, NBC and MSNBC.

It's possible that a handful of additional newspaper news accounts and television discussions mentioned the fact that approximately 30,000 people die from gunfire every year. (Nexis transcripts don't capture every cable news segment.) But given the extraordinary amount of coverage of the Newtown shooting, the press had ample opportunities to highlight the 30,000 number. But these findings indicate that the references were quite scarce. In fact, they were even scarcer than when I urged the press to include crucial gun death context following the Aurora gun massacre in July.

Other key points that have been largely ignored in the Newtown coverage:

•There are huge economic costs associated with gun violence. For example, firearm-related deaths and injuries resulted in medical and lost of productivity expenses of about $32 billion in the U.S., according to most recently available data.

•Gun violence is among the leading causes of premature death in the U.S.

•Among the world's 23 wealthiest countries, 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids.

The point here isn't to simply to wallow in a grim statistics. It's to  illustrate how little context is included in the so-called 'gun debate' in this country. And especially the so-called gun debate that takes place in the media.

If that conversation is really going to happen it's imperative Americans understand what's at the center of the topic, and that sadly, this crisis extends far beyond Newtown.