The three major cable news networks covered last week’s mass shooting at a Wisconsin brewery for less than one hour combined -- and none of that coverage addressed solutions to prevent gun violence.
On February 26, a gunman opened fire at the Molson Coors Brewing Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, killing five people before he turned the gun on himself. The 51-year-old gunman was reportedly a longtime employee of the company, where he worked as an electrician, but had recently been fired. According to local police, the shooter was armed with two handguns, one of which was equipped with a sound suppressor (commonly known as a silencer). The shooting was one of the worst in Wisconsin’s recent history and the deadliest in the U.S. so far this year. The shooting took place hours after the state’s Republican legislative leaders made clear their opposition to any new gun laws.
From the time news of the shooting first broke, around 3:30 p.m. EST on February 26, until midnight on March 4, all three major cable news networks covered the story for just under 50 minutes total. Fox News covered the shooting for 18 and a half minutes, CNN for nearly 26 minutes, and MSNBC for only 5 minutes. The coverage across all networks was entirely breaking news updates; no airtime was given to discussions about policies addressing gun violence, current gun laws, or gun safety proposals in Wisconsin.
Mainstream media outlets have long struggled with giving viewers an accurate look at gun violence in the U.S. Though high-casualty shootings make up less than 1% of all gun violence, they receive the bulk of media attention, while everyday gun violence impacting communities of color -- and even sometimes mass shootings -- fail to break through. The Trace, an online magazine covering gun violence, reported that “for many local activists and organizers, the reactions” to the brewery shooting “glossed over the reality of gun violence in Milwaukee: a chronic problem that affects hundreds of lives each year.” According to The Trace, “Within a one-mile radius of the Molson Coors campus alone, there have been at least 165 shootings since 2014.”
Even though last week's Wisconsin shooting received limited coverage, when gun violence is covered by national media, it is typically through cases like this -- attacks in which there are large numbers of victims and the violence takes place outside of a home. And coverage of gun violence almost never puts the issue into broader context by discussing gun safety policies or solutions.
When a November school shooting in Santa Clarita, California, left two dead and three injured, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News gave it about 11 hours of breaking news coverage, but only one hour of focus on policy solutions. Following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that left 59 dead and more than 500 injured, only 19% of the broadcast news coverage mentioned policy or evidence-based solutions to gun violence.
Wisconsin currently has the 31st highest rate of gun homicides and 38th highest rate of overall gun deaths in the U.S., with 71% of those being gun suicides, another type of gun violence that often receives little media attention. The state’s gun death rate has increased by 36% between 2008 and 2017, compared to a 17% increase nationwide. While Wisconsin does use a state database in addition to the federal database to conduct background checks for in-store firearms purchases -- a measure that helps catch prohibited buyers -- there is no requirement for background checks on private sales, no bans on assault weapons or high capacity magazines, no restrictions on purchasing multiple firearms at one time, no waiting periods for firearms purchases, and no ammunition regulation.
Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has recently tried to tighten the state’s gun laws. In October 2019, Evers called for a special legislative session on gun violence prevention in order to pass legislation for universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders, which would allow authorized individuals to petition for the temporary removal of firearms from people who are a danger to themselves or others. Even though 80% of Wisconsin residents support expanded background checks, the special session was adjourned within 30 seconds of its November 7 opening by Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
At the federal level, 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 firearm are all stalled in Congress because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refuses to bring any gun violence legislation to the Senate floor.
Mainstream media outlets do a disservice to their viewers when they don’t give the necessary context -- including which communities are most impacted and what solutions are being proposed -- in their coverage of gun violence.
Media Matters searched the SnapStream database for any of the terms “gun,” “shot,” “murder,” “handgun,” or any variation of “shoot” or “kill” within close proximity of any of the terms “Wisconsin,” “Milwaukee,” “Molson Coors,” or “brewery” in original cable news programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC between 4 a.m. and midnight EST from February 26 through March 4, 2020. We timed all mentions of the shooting, including teasers, headlines, passing mentions, interview questions, breaking news, and full segments.