AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Most Gun Violence Reporting Misses The Mark

Gun lover, journalist and author Dan Baum says reporters aren't doing a good enough job informing themselves — and the public — about guns and firearm enthusiasts. Reporting on guns often uses the “cheap and emotional tactic” of playing up victims’ pain, he says.“That’s bullshit; that’s not reporting.” Poynter is addressing the issue with its second workshop designed to “improve the accuracy and depth of coverage of America’s gun debate, without deference to any political agenda or special interests.”

Dan Baum, a self-described liberal who, as author Gun Guys: A Road Trip, knows more about gun culture in the United States than most, thinks the media does a bad job covering stories involving firearms.

Using words like “depressing,” “ignorance” and “arrogance,” Baum says reporters act like stenographers when covering gun-related issues.

Whether it’s network or local TV newscasts, a small town paper or The New York Times, Baum says reporters tend to regurgitate what they hear from both sides of the gun debate rather than delve deeply into the subject to really learn something about it.

And much of the commentary and reporting is colored by a bias against gun owners, he says. Few can really define what qualifies as an automatic assault rifle, he says. Yet TV pundits and opinion page writers readily, and regularly, demand they be banned.

Reporting on guns often uses the “cheap and emotional tactic” of playing up victims’ pain, he says.“That’s bullshit; that’s not reporting. The ignorance around reporters and firearms is appalling and, quite frankly, the institutional bias is depressing.”

Agree or not, Baum knows his stuff. Having wrestled for most of his life with being both a gun lover and the son of suburban Jewish Democrats, Baum traversed the country researching Gun Guys, determined to get to know his fellow gun owners and what makes them tick.

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Gun Guys documents Baum’s journey as he meets individuals touched by guns — from a zealous proponent of armed self-defense and the head of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership to a shooting victim and a Chicago killer.

As Baum writes, the book wasn’t motivated by a desire to dissect Americans’ relationships with guns or “wallow in the minutiae of gun control.” Rather, it was aimed at answering more basic questions, like why some are passionate about guns and why others are disgusted by them.

Baum’s criticism of journalists comes from the inside. He is a New Jersey guy who first fell for guns as a young kid at camp. He has had a lengthy career as a writer and reporter, working for pillars of mainstream media like The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.

He is a staunch proponent of gun safety, but refers to the NRA as “a hideous organization.” He insists his criticism of gun-related coverage — from murder to policy — is “not about the Second Amendment,” but is driven by the fact that “I care about how my fellow reporters do their work.”

“It drives me crazy that these well-funded, well-financed intelligent people could be doing a really good job and aren’t doing it … and no one is holding them accountable for it,” he says.

Baum isn’t the only one who has a problem with the media’s handling of guns.

Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting, says he, too, sees a big disconnect between reporters and guns.

“Especially in rural areas, I find the journalists are often quite unlike the people they cover,” he says. “Most journalists tell me they know next to nothing about guns, even if they cover crimes involving guns quite a lot.”

That, combined with the mistakes journalists have made in covering stories such as the shootings at the Aurora, Colo. movie theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School, led Thompson to create training programs so journalists can help cover guns more “insightfully” as the issues surrounding firearms garner more attention.

Next up is Poynter’s second Covering Guns Seminar, a two-day workshop designed to “improve the accuracy and depth of coverage of America’s gun debate, without deference to any political agenda or special interests.”

The seminar is scheduled for July 10-12 at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Like the first held in Chicago last year, the seminar will feature discussions with experts in guns as well as the legalities of firearms and gun violence. Topics range from gun basics, such as the differences between automatic and semi-automatic weapons or a .357 and .22 caliber weapons, and how the Second Amendment does or doesn’t apply to the debate on gun control.

Participants will also shoot at a target range, many firing a gun themselves for the first time.

Danielle Koleniak, an anchor and reporter at WBBH, Waterman Broadcasting’s NBC affiliate in Fort Myers-Naples, Fla., says she believes the problems with gun-related coverage stem from journalists being at a disadvantage from the get-go.

“As journalists, we’re expected to know about everything but rarely are given the tools to do so,” says Koleniak, who attended last year’s gun seminar. “In return, information is incorrectly reported, slanted and skewed.”

“I knew very little, if anything, at all about guns, yet I found myself behind crime scene tape one to two times a month,” she says.  “So often the media covers the initial shooting, gets some reaction sound and then moves along when the scene is clear. But that only scratches the surface. The journalism is digging deeper.”

Baum says he’s all for efforts like Thompson’s trying to take command of the problem.

But there are cultural norms, many smacking of elitism that journalists have to break, too, before they can honestly and competently talk about guns, Baum says.

All you have to do is watch gun-hating commentators on TV or read a newspaper’s opinion page to see that people in the media simply don’t like guys with guns, he says.

“The people who like guns are like the great unwashed,” Baum says. “There is a class element here. People who work for national television are paid very well, and they are wealthy people. And a lot of people who like guns are not.”

“They are rural, they are unsophisticated and they are not wealthy — and these slick, well-paid, urbane media people think nothing of just saying the most god awful things about them.

“These are the people who would never say things that are unkind about gays or blacks or women or the disabled,” he says.

Tompkins says he believes the problems with guns coverage stems more from journalists’ lack of experience with the subject than snobbery. “We don’t worry as much about perceived culture as we do facts,” he says.

Regardless, Baum says his beef with the media is not for naught. “This is a serious debate about firearms, and reporters can do a lot about how guns work, how they move through society and how they end up in the wrong hands,” he says.

“And if they weren’t being so f—ing lazy, they could have added something to this debate. But they didn’t.”


Comments (5)

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Kessa Wakefield says:

June 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm

As a lifelong gun owner, shooter and hunter- I am glad to hear this story and the interest in educating the press to cover this highly fueled debate more accurately.

I think you would find that the majority of LEGAL gun owners are good law abiding people. The guns are not the real danger- its the person holding the weapon. If you could look at the statistics provided by the FBI you would find that violent crime is on the way down, and gun ownership is on the way UP signifiantly. Concealed carrry when made legal has resulted in reduced violent crime. But this does not make the headlines ever.

Certianly the ‘misinformation’ that uneducated reports make about guns and gun violence truly shows their lack of knowledge- examples; assault weapons that can legally be purched in the US are NOT automatic weapons. The caliber for the AR-15 (.223) is not even legal in many states to use for deer hunting- is is NOT a ‘powerful’ weapon, but was chosen by our military to allow a soldier to carry more ammunition and be significantly lethal when TWO rounds are quickly shot into an enemy. It can be lethal when one round is fired accurately at a target- but most criminals simply can not shoot well. And the AR-15 in civilain form is not an ‘automatic’ weapon- one trigger pull results in one round fired- if you hold the trigger down only one round is fired. I could go on- but I hope you get the idea.

What the current state of reporting does show to the educated public- is the lack of being a ‘true’ reporter. When I went to college in communications- the professors taught us to be ‘unbiased’ and look at both sides of an issue- and to understand both sides of an issue. Either they don’t teach this anymore- or reporters are taught how to gain headlines and ratings with ‘entertainment’ not ‘reporting’.

I hope this program highlighted in this article can have some impact to interest reports to understand the gun issue better. It really is not the gun that is at fault- it is the person holding it. If our legal system would choose to enforce most of the existing gun laws… and if our society could truely offer parenting and opportunity to our youth, maybe the cycle of violence could be changed. Wow- a story idea?

I believe it takes radicals on both sides of an issue to make a compromise most of us could live with- its the majority that usually stays quite. But I would not classify myself as a radical at all- I am an educated business owner who understands the responsibility of being an ethical and legal gun owner- and also believes in the second amendment.

mike tomasino says:

June 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm

I am a radical. The founders would consider me simply to be a patriot. The fundamental natural law right of self defense is absolutely necessary for any society to truely be called free. That fundamental right extends not just to a right to defend yourself against common criminals, but against history’s most notorious criminal gang (government). What we know as “gun control” is simply political oppression of particular groups of people. Whatever group that you are attempting to restrict firearms from is the group you are politically oppressing. Criminals, who by definition don’t obey the law, are rarely hendered by gun laws, they only act to restrict the fundamental right of self defense for those who wish to obey the law. If fact, criminal organizations, including tyranical government, love gun control because it restricts their victim’s ability to defend themselves. The only thing that the modern gun control movement has accomplished is the creation of giant bureaucracies (economic vampires that produce no real value) while never addressing the real causes of violent and non-violent crime.

Gene Johnson says:

June 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm

If one wants to say concealed carry is responsible for reduced violent crime, so too is the existence of strong gun control in other countries responsible for even lower rates of violent crime and murder (e.g., most western European nations). If those on the gun-rights side of the debate took a bit more reasonable and rational approach, rather than an absolutist “no regulation at all is allowed” approach, the tone of the debate might be a bit different. The media, particularly the broadcast media, have never done nuance well. It’s just not something that fits well in a 2-3 minute (or less) story. There are plenty of reasonable gun owners, but they get drowned out by the absolutists, and don’t do much if anything to have their voices heard. The recent debate about and failure of legislation regarding background checks is one such example. Despite polls showing 85-90% public support (or more) the absolutists were able to hold sway. If gun supporters want more balanced and nuanced coverage of the issue, perhaps they should try doing something about the primary voice that is heard advocating for no gun regulation whatsoever – the NRA, which now doesn’t even support positions it used to hold such as favoring background checks. The outlandish and false claims of those opposing the background check legislation (such as that it will create a gun registry, even though such a registry was prohibited in the legislation), illustrates the lack of reason and rational debate that takes place.

    mike tomasino says:

    June 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    More and more background checks simply add to the vampire bureaucracies. They don’t actually help fight the problem of crime. They just help employ more economic vampires. But, you don’t get that because logical thinking is lost on you. Less government, and more logical thinking leads to less real crime and sustainable economics!!! Volks like JamesV don’t seem to realize that they are saying “sieg heil” to the American Nazi Party.

Marshall Cohen says:

June 18, 2013 at 6:33 pm

The single abiding truth in this article is hinted-at by WBBH’s Koleniak: “As journalists, we’re expected to know about everything but rarely are given the tools to do so.” But that’s as far as the truth carries. While mistakes are possible and coverage may not rise to the discourse of subject-matter mavens, it does not logically follow that “slanted and skewed” coverage is an inevitable result.

I have been a professional journalist, covering national and international stories, for 38 years — not quite as long as I have been a competitive shooter and firearms builder. With comparably Baum-like credentials, I too chuckle at some of the editorial and reporting errors — mainly in nomenclature — that I spot in the coverage of gun violence and, to a lesser degree, of the gun control debate. But so much of it is just incidental, not fundamental to the story.

As a matter of perspective, it is no worse than other non-specialist or undereducated reporting at the local and national level: non-SAE-certified reporters covering automobile crashes, a government drone program covered by correspondents unschooled in aerodynamics and missilery, college dropouts working as nationally-celebrated political pundits (Let me save you some time: Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh). But America’s media have long been in the hands of hard-working generalists who ultimately get the story right by persistently asking the same “five Ws and an H.”

I suppose a larger question would be, what outcome would Mr. Baum like to see from some new media firearms fluency? Would knowing more about mechanisms and ballistics, or becoming more adept gun handlers, necessarily make journalists less (his words now) “f—ing lazy” and “bullshit” prone? (Or more articulate?) Would it make them more sympathetic to gun lovers, or at least more benignly ambivalent?

And he is right — the classic definition of an assault rifle eludes most commentators, as does the fact that actual “assault rifles” are already banned for civilian ownership except under narrow circumstances. But I submit that the commentators themselves certainly know what they have in mind as they urge bans on the instruments-of-choice for mass murderers — an attitude that would doubtless remain unchanged by a grammar lesson. (The lawyers drafting the law can sort out those details.)

As for the non-profit Poynter Institute being the actual repository of inspired truth it claims to be: bless dear old Al Tompkins, but “those who can, do.”

Messrs. Tompkins and Baum fret aloud about the ability of journalists to rise (descend?) to an empathetic understanding of the gun-loving proletariat. But Al is right: journalists in fact are “quite unlike the people they cover,” just as musicians are manifestly different from the people they entertain and basketball players are 180-degrees removed from the cigar-chompers betting on their performance. Most journalists are not bad, but they are different — at least to the extent that they believe free speech to be its own disinfectant, and recognize that not all contrasting viewpoints enjoy the same moral or factual authority. If reliably representing those contrasting viewpoints seems like to stenography to Mr. Baum, I’d like to know why. (We are treated in this piece to chunks of Baum’s verbal shrapnel: “depressing,” “ignorance,” “arrogance.” I would have liked to have seen those terms in context, but Ms. Marszalek apparently lacked a stenographer.)

Mr. Baum is actually more reasonable than this article alone would let on. And less profane. He mostly is more pro-safety than just critically anti-reporter and uncritically pro-gun, and a couple of months ago in the New York Times he bemoaned the lack of a “tree for [moderate gun owners] to gather under.” It would have been good to hear more of that here, and less of a book plug-cum-anti-media broadside.

But maybe that’s the kind of perspective that’s only available to those who know more about calibers and gauges and sight alignment and such. If it would help, I hear Poynter has a course….


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