By Dr. Michael S. Brown
Guns are an unfortunate fact of life in American culture and are a major topic in modern journalism. As a journalist, you have a duty to get involved and make a difference in this important societal debate. By following certain guidelines, the concerned journalist can be assured of having the maximum impact on this shameful American problem. The concepts discussed here apply both to broadcast and print media. For the purposes of this guide, our work is divided between routine stories about gun violence and the broader coverage of the political debate about gun control. They are both equally important. Let us first address the proper way to construct a news story involving common gun crimes . . .
Covering Common Gun Violence Stories
The purpose of routine gun crime coverage is to create the impression of a continuing, growing and terrifying tidal wave of gun violence. Your goal is to plant the fear of guns in the minds of ordinary people, fear for themselves and especially for their children. Let’s start with the basics.
The importance of terminology
The first and most critical principle to remember is that subtle use of terminology can covertly influence the reader or viewer. For example, when describing a gun crime, victims must be shot “by” a gun, not “with” a gun. This may seem like a small detail, but it helps establish the principle that guns are responsible for crime.
Mass shootings get most of our attention and we we’ll discuss them shortly, but most shootings involve only one victim. This should not discourage a talented journalist. There are ways to make even the smallest shooting incident serve the greater good by following these suggestions.
When telling the story, adjectives should always be chosen for maximum anti-gun effect.
When describing a gun, whenever possible, attach terms like “automatic,” “semi-automatic,” “large caliber,” “deadly,” “high powered,” or “powerful”. Small pistols can be called “cheap” or “concealable.” Almost any gun can be described by one or more of these terms. Any group of more than two guns should be referred to an “arsenal”.
Try to include the term “assault weapon” if at all possible. While it normally applies only to rifles, the term can be combined with any of the terms above to good effect. Any weapon can be used to assault someone, so you cannot be criticized for this usage. “Assault weapon” is one of our most effective emotional terms, use it often. However, when these weapons are used by police, they should be called “tactical rifles” or “patrol rifles.”
A brief visit to the website of a national anti-gun organization can provide you with a list of the latest talking points and terms like these old classics: “Saturday Night Specials,” “cop-killer bullets” and the criminal’s “weapon of choice“.
Whenever police confiscate guns, they usually also confiscate ammunition. You must include the number of rounds seized, since the number will seem large to those who know little about guns. You may simply call them “bullets” if that is appropriate for your audience. If possible, find a way to imply that each round could have resulted in a dead child if the police had not intervened. For example, “also seized were 200 bullets, more than were fired at Columbine.”
These days it’s important to include the size of a gun’s magazine. If you don’t know specifics, just call it a “high-capacity clip.” The type of ammunition used is fair game too. Hollow point bullets sound especially sinister. The term, “armor-piercing” comes in handy too, don’t be afraid to use it.
When discussing laws that allow certain people to carry concealed weapons, call them “hidden guns” as it sounds a bit more sinister.
“Vigilantism” is a word you will also find useful. Technically, a vigilante is someone who goes out looking for criminals to confront, but you should apply the term to anyone who uses a gun in self-defense. It’s important that this kind of behavior is marginalized and discouraged, so that the people become more dependent on the police.
Always use the term “shooting” instead of attack, massacre, mass murder, atrocity or similar terms.
Don’t worry about getting technical details right. You need not know anything about guns for your articles. Many a reporter has accidentally written about semi-automatic revolvers or committed other minor errors. Since most people get their gun knowledge from Hollywood, this isn’t a problem. Only the gun nuts will complain and no who matters listens to them.
The emotional content of your article is much more important than the factual details, since people are more easily influenced through their emotions than logic.
One detail that should be mentioned, but is too often overlooked, is the model of the gun used in a crime. Get this information from the police and do an internet search for other crimes involving this model. This is how gun bans are born and you can be a part of it.
If you run across useful information about safe gun handling or how guns actually work, don’t share it with the public. People fear and hate things they don’t understand.
Broadcast news teams should have stock video on hand showing a machine gun firing on full automatic. Run this video while describing common semi-automatic guns used in a crime or confiscated by police. At the least, a large graphic of a handgun should be displayed behind the on-air personality when reading any crime story, even if guns are not involved. Guns should be the symbol of crime.
Do not waste words describing criminals who use guns to commit crimes. Instead of calling them burglar, rapist, murderer, or repeat offender, simply use the term “gunman”. This helps the public associate all forms of crime and violence with the possession of guns. (Note that this may soon change to “gunperson” as more women take part in mass shootings.)
Whenever drug dealers are arrested, guns are usually confiscated by the police – this is ripe for exploitation. Mention the type and number of guns more prominently than the type and quantity of drugs. Obviously, the drug dealers who had the guns should now be called “gunmen” rather than drug dealers.
Emphasize stories where people kill family members and/or themselves with guns. It is important to make the public feel like they could lose control and start killing at any moment if they have a gun in the house. This is a good place to include a factoid from a gun safety group, like the one saying you are 47 times more likely to be killed if you keep a gun in your house.
Any story where a child misuses a gun or is the victim of a gun automatically becomes front page material.
View every shooting as an event to be exploited. Always include emotional quotes from the victim’s family if possible. If they are not available, the perpetrator’s family will do nicely. The quote must blame the tragedy on the availability of guns, not bad decisions or upbringing. Photos or video of grieving family members are worth a thousand facts. Most people will accept the assertion that guns cause crime. It is much easier than believing that some people deliberately choose to harm others.
Your story should include terms like “tragic” or “preventable” and you must mention the current toll of gun violence in your city or state. Good reporters always know exactly how many gun deaths have occurred in their area since the first of the year. To make this number larger, you should include accidents and suicides in this total, even if your story is about intentional homicide. List two or three of the most shocking recent incidents to give the impression of a continuing and expanding crime wave.
Any article about gun violence should include quotes from anti-gun organizations or politicians who are promoting their latest idea for the next new gun law. One quote should say that we must do something “for the children”. If a proposed gun law seems likely to be ineffective, use the old line, “If it saves only one life, it’s worth it.”
As you know, cities with the strictest gun control laws have the highest crime rates. If you work in one of these enlightened municipalities, it is critical that you blame all gun crime on weapons illegally transported from states with weak gun laws. You may embellish this concept by stating that most crime guns are purchased at gun shows in those states and flow in an “iron river” to your city. Include the fact that criminals are able to buy all sorts of weapons, including machine guns, at gun shows without any background checks.
Themes to avoid
Never question the effectiveness of gun control laws or proposals. Given the inherent danger of firearms in civilian hands, removing guns from society by whatever means necessary can only be good. Don’t discuss the fact that gun laws are often not enforced and theres’ no need to mention that it takes men with guns to enforce them.
Common sense tells us that nobody ever uses guns for legitimate self-defense, especially women or children. You may occasionally run across incidents in which ordinary people defend themselves with a gun. These should be minimized or suppressed. One subtle method is to say that the defender had some sort of government training, i.e. retired cop or ex-military, which makes their actions more acceptable.
In some cases, armed homeowners actually shoot criminals, but don’t be tempted to deviate from the standard narrative. In these cases, the criminal becomes the victim. Include quotes or video of his relatives saying what a “good boy” he was. The homeowner should be demonized if possible.
Be careful about criticizing the police for responding slowly to 911 calls. It’s best if the public feels the police can be relied upon to protect them at all times. If people are buying guns to protect their families, you are not doing your job.
Little space should be devoted to shootings in which criminals kill each other. Although these deaths greatly inflate annual gun violence numbers, they distract from the basic mission of urging law abiding citizens to give up their guns. Digging too deeply into the reasons behind shootings can be counterproductive, too. The fact that a gun was involved is the major point, unless someone under 18 is affected, in which case the child angle should be presented as being of equal importance.
One disturbing current trend is the rise in mass shootings by Muslim terrorists. Not only does this encourage people to buy more guns, it also casts doubt on the effectiveness of our common sense gun safety laws. Every opportunity should be taken to downplay these events, emphasize the lax gun law that allowed them to acquire firearms and emphasize other shootings carried out by white American men. While doing so, you must be very selective in reporting the political leanings of these men. Only right-wing, conservative beliefs should be mentioned, no matter the actual political leanings of the perpetrator(s).
Never mention the copycat effect caused by media coverage. Mental illness is another factor to be downplayed. To paraphrase an old saying, “it’s the guns, stupid.”
An important factor in our favor
If you consider the size of the U.S. population, the number of gun deaths isn’t actually that impressive, especially when viewed alongside other causes of death such as cancer, heart disease, medical mistakes and the like. But when a shooting story makes the national news, its effect is greatly magnified in the public consciousness.
To the individual viewer or reader, it will seem like the event took place near them. The accretive effect of the national media also means that people can be bombarded with story after story about gun violence. This serves the goal of creating a general fear of guns. If a modest shooting happens in your city, do your best to get it onto the national wire services or cable news networks.
The Political debate – backstory
The ongoing public debate about the role of guns and gun laws in society has remained at a high level since the 1960’s. Although many good, restrictive laws have been enacted, it is important to make people believe otherwise. It is also good to imply that no debate has been going on at all when we should be having a “national conversation about guns.” Make your audience believe that the gun lobby has never given up anything. Our side just wants reasonable compromise and an honest dialogue that will give us common sense gun safety laws. There is a famous quote by John F. Kennedy, “What is mine is mine, but what is yours is negotiable,” that is our basic principle.
Mainstream Journalism mounted a massive and courageous attack on the gun lobby after Sandy Hook massacre in December, 2012. By coordinating with our friends in government and the gun safety groups, we were able to make our largest gains in two decades. One reason for this success is that we have finally overthrown the tired old concept that journalists should appear to be unbiased.
2016 – A turbulent year
With the Obama administration in its final year, there is a sense of urgency in the air. Depending on the results of the November election, we could be at a severe disadvantage beginning in 2017. This stressor, combined with the opportunities provided by high profile mass shootings, makes for a chaotic and emotional news environment.
A number of gun safety advocates in the media have abandoned the cover story that they’re only interested in incremental, non-threatening, gun laws. In the past, you were urged to use phrases like gun safety, rather than gun control, but that long-standing principle has been called into question. You must pay attention to current trends and try to make your coverage of gun issues fit the dominant narrative, whatever it may be.
Corporate media managers have found that conducting hostile on-air interviews with gun lobbyists boosts ratings, so if you work on the air, you must be prepared for this kind of confrontation. Always refer to pro-gun organizations as “the gun lobby”. When talking to them on the air, give free reign to your feelings. This is a good time to be condescending and self-righteous. It is now acceptable to shout and call them names. They are evil, shameful and ignorant. We all know it, so why hide it?
Do not let them confuse you with facts. Do not try to engage them in a real discussion. Have your list of anti-gun talking points in front of you. If you must improvise, stick to the most emotional statements and questions you can think of. Don’t ever admit that any of their facts are correct. Just cut them off and move on to your next talking point without the slightest affirmation. At least half of those talking points should involve children and if your opponent disagrees, feel free to announce that they are in favor of dead children.
This is no time for honesty. For example, it is recommended that you state, at the outset, that you believe in the second amendment. You can even say that you have owned a gun. Our analysts believe that this gives you more credibility with the public, as long as you sound sincere, and of course that’s what you do for a living.
The Gun Lobby
The National Rifle Association should be a primary target of your words. A great deal of work has gone into nurturing a general hatred of this organization. Although the NRA is not among the top campaign contributors, always mention “NRA money” when discussing how they influence politicians. Their legislative lobbying efforts should be described as “arm twisting” or “threats”.
Whenever mentioning the NRA, it’s important to frame that reference in the right way. For example, you can mention the most recent emotional gun incident: “On the four year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings, the NRA announced a new program to promote gun ownership.”
There are many other gun lobby groups that are smaller than the NRA, some are national, like Gun Owners of America and The Second Amendment Foundation. Some are at the state level. Try to ignore these organizations, since it detracts from our portrayal of the evil, monolithic gun lobby.
Gun owners must never be seen in a positive light. Do not mention that these misguided individuals may actually be well educated, or have respectable careers and healthy families. They should be called “gun nuts” if you can get away with it or simply gun owners at best. Mention details about their clothing, especially if they are wearing hunting clothes or hats. Mention the simplistic slogans on their bumper stickers to show that their intelligence level is low. Many gun owners drive pickup trucks, hunt helpless animals and live in rural areas. Use these details to help portray them as ignorant rednecks.
Off-air interviews of gun lobbyists
When preparing a print article on the problem of gun violence, you will often wish to interview someone from the gun lobby. This allows you to include obligatory quotes that will give your coverage an appearance of balance.
Your goal, of course, is to make them look bad and their arguments extreme or ridiculous. Don’t hesitate to take their quotes completely out of context. Be aggressive and confrontational. Consider bringing a second interviewer to create a tag team effect. Always ask if the lobbyist is making their own recording; if they are, fabricating a quote isn’t advisable. If not, you are free to do as you wish.
When a pro-gun group stages a public rally or demonstration, avoid covering it if possible. If you must cover it, underestate the number who attended. Have your photo/video person arrive well before or after the peak attendance to show a smaller crowd. Pick out the most ridiculous hand-made signs and the oddest looking people, isolate them from the crowd, and make sure they are prominently featured in your visual coverage.
Try not to cover pro-gun rallies that are held on weekends. Since working people can attend, these are generally much larger than the weekday rallies. You will also find many young families with children, which is not the image you want for your story. Weekday rallies, which are scheduled to catch legislators at work, tend to be made up mostly of retired people. This fits our desired narrative of gun owners as old, white men who are on their way out.
One recent development is the staging of rallies where participants carry guns openly. On one hand, carrying guns makes them look scary and menacing to good progressive folks. On the other hand, there is never any violence at these rallies, which tends to support their point that guns prevent violence. If you must cover such a rally, I suggest that you rely on close up visuals of the weapons and try to interview a Progressive bystander who felt threatened.
Rallies to end gun violence and support common sense gun legislation are fairly common and every one must receive as much coverage as possible. Your goal is to maximize the impact by minimizing these negative factors:
Anti-gun rallies tend to be quite small, so you must overestimate the size of the crowd. Arrange your visuals so that the small number of participants seems larger. Make sure several of the professionally printed signs are in each view. Include images of moms, kids and minorities, if any, to create contrast with the image of old, white, male gun owners.
Quite often, the participants are given free transportation and free lunch by a gun safety organization. There is no reason to mention this.
If prominent public figures arrive to speak, they will often be protected by armed bodyguards. Do not point this out and do not include the bodyguards in your visuals. You must also avoid showing any counter-demonstrators or hecklers from the pro-gun side.
Face to face with real gun owners
When you are building a piece on new gun laws, you will appear less biased if you get comments from some local gun owners. This can be more productive than interviewing experienced gun lobbyists.
Don’t be afraid to interview gun owners, they are harmless even though we portray them as a menace to society. Try to solicit comments that show them in the worst possible light. Veteran reporters call this “bumpkin hunting.” Gun shows may not be your best hunting ground. You will not be allowed to conduct interviews inside a gun show, but the parking lot may be available. Gun shop owners are excellent targets. They find it hard to refuse an interview request and can usually be relied upon to make statements that play into our preferred stereotype.
You must only interview white males over age 50 who sound and look unintelligent. Make them look ridiculous, especially when they talk about gun ownership as a barrier to tyranny. Find ways to blame them for the gun violence in the inner cities or the horrific mass shootings. Never show or refer to any gun owners who are women, minorities or liberals.
If you come into contact with many gun owners, eventually one will offer to take you to a local shooting club and teach you how to shoot. This can be a very tempting offer, especially if, like most of us, you have never fired a real gun. It may also seem like a good way for you to better understand the enemy. Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless activity has led to many defections and articles that are damaging to our cause. You must not, under any circumstances, accept such an offer.
Gun safety organizations
Anti-gun organizations must be treated with care. They currently prefer to be called “gun safety” groups, but this may change in the future. Do not attempt to investigate their finances, their campaign spending or their membership, which is embarrassingly small compared to gun lobby organizations. Their money comes from a small number of millionaires and billionaires who don’t like the idea of ordinary people being armed. Do not mention this or the fact that these wealthy donors are protected by heavily armed security personnel who are not affected by gun control laws.
Dealing with inconsistencies
One of the largest problems facing the gun safety movement is that violent crime has dropped substantially in the last two decades, a time when misguided Americans have purchased guns at frightening rates and several million have acquired permits to carry hidden guns. It is critical that we keep this paradox from coming to the attention of the general public. You must avoid any mention of it, even under the most severe pressure.
Another major problem is the lack of any evidence showing that gun control laws have reduced gun violence – ignore this and say that restrictive laws are just common sense.
Many states have weakened their gun laws by allowing hidden guns or even allowing guns to be carried openly. During the debates preceding these changes in state law, predictions were made of gunfights over parking spots and “blood in the streets” of our cities. None of these predictions came true, which is somewhat embarrassing for our side. In spite of this, we should still make these same predictions in future articles about weakening gun laws. People have very short memories.
Feel secure in your advocacy journalism. The vast majority of your fellow journalists support your activism. Simply being an urban, liberal journalist makes you one of the elite and the people should let you guide them.
The nation will be a better place when only the police and military have guns. Remember that since you’re doing it for the children, the end justifies the means. Some day we will all drink the Kool-Aid of victory.
When civilians are eventually disarmed, the government will be able to exercise the power necessary to effectively guide society and the media will guide the government. If things don’t work out as planned, please feel free to contact me for more helpful hints.
Doctor Michael Brown is a tenured professor of Advocacy Journalism at the Bloomberg College of Liberal Arts.
Political Satire, copyright 2016, Michael S. Brown. May be distributed freely in its full and unmodified form.