Laughably Stupid Media Mistakes In Gun Reporting: How Much Do They Matter?

banana gun Creative Commons via Pixabay/RyanMcGuire

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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I’m going to begin with some disclaimers: First, I support the right of same-sex vegan couples to use firearms to protect their homegrown marijuana crops. Second, I do not own any firearms. Also, I live in New Jersey, where the bureaucracy of buying a firearm is thicker than a leveraged buyout of General Motors. Of course, I could take a 15-minute drive down to Newark and pick up a stolen Glock, but to quote Richard Nixon: “that would be wrong.”

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, we find ourselves in the gun-control debate cycle. As surely as night follows day, a mass shooting is followed by national grief, cries of “politicization” and various forms of kabuki (blustery speeches, staged “town hall” events augmented with social media thoughts and prayers, and of course, hashtags). This has been previously described in one of the cycles as “a sick clockwork.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

Journalists beclowning themselves

Part of the massacre-grief-anger-blame cycle includes journalists too-frequently beclowning themselves with stunningly idiotic statement about firearms. Now let’s be specific here. I’m not talking about different interpretations of law or policy (what works and what doesn’t). And I’m not talking about the factual errors that occur in the immediacy of reporting the shootings. After all, breaking news is only a snapshot of “what we know at this moment” and in the hypercompetitive world of news, honest mistakes as to identities, motives, numbers of victims and the like are inevitable. We must remember that journalism is history’s first draft.

No, I’m talking about stupidity for no good reason, or to be less charitable, in service of an agenda. One of the more recent brain farts was MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell saying that the difference of muzzle velocity between a handgun and a rifle projectile renders a teacher’s having a handgun useless. Huh? Hilarity ensued, of course, because the difference in speed would be measured in fractions of a millisecond. Maybe O’Donnell watched “The Matrix a few too many times. (And for what it’s worth, there are plenty of reasons that President Donald Trump should reconsider arming teachers).

We’ve been down this road before. The emblematic episode of ignorance in gun reporting was when The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, filing from Ferguson, Missouri thought that foam earplugs might be rubber bullets. (PRO-TIP: Asking stupid questions on Twitter is not fact-finding).

Last week Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University law professor, stated (with the smug certainty befitting a Harvard don) that “the semi-automatic AR-15 can fire over 10 rounds per second.” That’s 600 rounds a minute. Um, nope. That weapon’s maximum rate of fire is at best 45 rounds a minute. The list goes on. CNN reported that an AR-15 “shotgun” was used in the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting. There’s no such thing as an “AR-15 shotgun.”

In one of the most-derided episodes of mistaken or overwrought gun reporting, USA Today ginned up a video showing that one of accessories available for an AR-15-type weapon is a “chain-saw bayonet.” The mockery that followed was epic. Photoshop enthusiasts satirized the video with modifications including the USS Kitty Hawk, an Al Franken modification and — my personal favorite — the Tide Pod Launcher. Why do reporters to get basic facts about firearms so wrong, and so often, and what’s the impact?

Why journalists get it wrong: ignorance, fear and hubris

To get to the “why”, I spoke with Ken Wells, one of a handful of national journalists who knows about firearms and top-quality journalism. Wells grew up around firearms, often used to supplement the family income by hunting ducks and rabbits. He got a BB gun at age 9 and a .22 rifle at age 11. His journalism career took him from newspapers where he supervised stories that won two Pulitzer prizes, and later joined Bloomberg News before semi-retiring to concentrate on his book writing.

Wells attributes the frequency of gun reporting errors to two things: most journalists have no familiarity with weapons and it seems clear that neither do their editors; and these same reporters are largely unsupervised, especially when their thoughts go unfiltered to the world via social media.

Wells explains that “Guns are a tough assignment because all sides of the debate come to it with a lot of emotion and primed to call out even the smallest mistake or sense of bias. But it does strike me that a lot of journalists who report on guns don’t themselves have any experience with guns.  They don’t come from military or hunting families and they tend to have a general unease about guns and the people who own them.” Wells adds that reporters should “approach the matter with a certain agnosticism and a willingness to do the background work that gains them an honest familiarity with guns.”

Where are the editors?

“But to be clear, a journalist’s primary obligation is to always get it right” says Wells. “If the journalist is lost in unfamiliar territory, why aren’t they doing their homework? I accept that honest errors can happen in the heat of the deadline but some of these mistakes seem to reflect a predisposition or agenda against firearms. It also raises the question: Where are the editors?

When someone writes something that should generate a red flag because it seems overwrought or makes an assertion that begs for fact-checking, where is the adult in the room asking the reporter, “Are you sure? Are you serious?” Wells concluded by saying “This badly damages the readers’ trust in the journalist. If he or she was wrong about this, how can I believe them on anything else?”

Wrong about facts? So what?

That trust is the key to the second part of our question. Okay, the press can’t seem to get the facts about guns correct, but so what? It’s the policy that counts, right? And policy is set by lobbying groups anyway, so, in the words of one famous Second Amendment advocate: “what difference does it make, anyway?” I’m not convinced that’s entirely correct.

As big and easy a target as the National Rifle Association is, thoughtful people should be skeptical about overemphasizing the impact of lobbyists. As CNBC’s Jake Novak put it: “You know how the argument goes. The ‘conventional wisdom’ is the NRA’s heavy spending stops hundreds of politicians from enacting the “common sense” gun control laws they and everyone else would otherwise support.” But buying that argument wholesale requires two presuppositions: that the NRA is really the powerhouse detractors claim it is, and more importantly, the media is powerless to influence public opinion, which ultimately shapes public policy.

As to the “power” of the NRA, to be sure, it has outspent Michael Bloomberg’s “Everytown for Gun Safety” over the past two years on outside lobbyists, $8,470,000 to $4,250,000 according to Center for Responsive Politics data. (Disclosure: Bloomberg was my employer for close to 14 years). CNN reported that Bloomberg committed to spending $50 million to lobby and militate against firearms. That’s just one anti-gun entity: dozens of others exist. For perspective’s sake, keep in in mind that drug makers doled out $240 million for lobbying purposes last year, and the automotive industry spent more than $69 million, according to FEC data. (And despite that $69 million, cars are still required to have seat belts.)

The CNN article raises questions about whether the NRA is really outgunning the consortium of gun-control advocates: “Just this year, they defeated bills across 23 states that would have either let people carry guns in public schools or college campuses or would have let them carry concealed, loaded handguns in public with no permit and no training. They also defeated attempts to repeal universal background checks for all gun buyers in Colorado, and for all handgun buyers in Iowa and North Carolina.” So the jury is out on whether it’s as simple as blaming interest groups, although if you aren’t willing to do the math, it’s an easy conclusion to jump to.

Public trust in the press: You’re blowing it, folks

Recognizing that lobbyists have some influence, to overstate their influence is to deny faith in the role between the public, press and elected officials. The Jeffersonian model upon which our republic is formed — and the moral force behind the First Amendment — mandates that “The people are the only censors of their governors” and that the people in turn, must “get full information.” Put more simply, the purpose of a free press is to scrutinize the government and provide people with information, so they can make informed decisions and hold their representatives responsible. The same crowd who calls the 2016 election “illegitimate” because of Russian disinformation attempts cannot now be heard to complain that information – especially incorrect information – doesn’t matter, because lobbyists, not public opinion, drive the political machine.

Democracy requires public trust in the press, which is the lifeblood of the public/media relationship. In its 2017 annual confidence poll, Gallup found that Americans’ trust in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” reached its lowest level in history, with only 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. A 2017 Knight Foundation poll echoed that sentiment, finding that more than eight in 10 U.S. adults believe that while the news media are critical to our democracy, 66% of Americans say most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. (In 1984, only 42% held this view).

Despite our obsession with monster trucks, fidget spinners, Kardashian things and funny cat videos, Americans are smarter than we are given credit for. Of course, there’s no hope for the fringes, where bunker mentality thrives. If you believe that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophilia ring out of a D.C. pizza shop, or that Russians rigged voting machines to favor Donald Trump, there’s not a lot of hope for you. But fringes aside, Americans generally know a stupid factual error when we see one. So when MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle blithely declares that the Secret Service covering Ronald Reagan were armed only with handguns, that statement just doesn’t square with reality.

Mistakes matter. Even the small ones. Because if I can’t trust you to know the difference between a foam earplug and a bullet, or to do 45 seconds of research and find out how many rounds an AR-15 really can fire, you don’t get to say “never mind the details” in a gun safety discussion. And you don’t get to ask America to believe you on the larger, more difficult policy questions. We just can’t trust you.

Charles Glasser was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook.” He teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.