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.”
Most Gun Violence Reporting Misses The Mark
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.
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.”