By Charles Heller
The Columbia Journalism Review convened on April 6, 2021, a summit of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Trace, The Guardian and others to detail “what we can do about reporting on [so-called] gun violence.”
CJR boiled down six essential pledge elements that comprise the “CJR Gun Violence Coverage Commitment.” CJR hopes to convince news people across the country to sign on and obey. As a career print and radio journalist and editorialist, I would never sign the Commitment. Why not? Because the CJR Commitment contradicts journalism’s purpose to, “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.” (SPJ Ethics Code)
Examine the CJR Commitment’s first three pledges.
No. 1. We pledge to cover gun violence like the unfolding health crisis it is.
Gun violence in America is an epidemic, killing 100 people every day. Rather than cover it as a series of dramatic, but unrelated, news events, we will provide sustained, thorough coverage of the causes … and the solutions seriously being considered to contain it.
Consider a first principle of journalism, its purpose. Journalism is supposed to provide observed facts within a framework of objective reality. The “coloring” of facts to subtly shift opinion is not journalism—it is known amongst professional journalists as “framing bias.” Such bias slants the news via a filter distorted by the view of the reporter or organization. Framing bias is unvarnished intellectual dishonesty.
When this pledge uses the term “gun violence” it engages in framing bias. In fact, there is no such thing as a violent gun. Therefore, there is no such thing as “gun violence.” There certainly is criminal violence, but that is not the conclusion the CJR is pushing people to reach.
Contrast how media covers deliberate violence done with automobiles. When has any media outlet reported on “automotive violence?” How about violence committed while intoxicated? What media outlet has reported on “alcohol violence?” Certainly, we have heard of “gang violence” (an accurate term because gangs actually do it).
So-called “gun violence” is actually criminal violence. Tying “guns” to violence is a framing bias designed to make the audience dislike and distrust the ownership of guns.
CJR’s statistic, “Gun violence in America is an epidemic, killing 100 people every day,” is more framing bias. Sixty-seven percent of deaths involving guns in the U.S. are actually suicides. Suicide is tragic and a medical issue. Conflating this with “gun violence” is simply dishonest reporting, intentionally biased to instill distrust about civilian gun ownership.
CJR’s claim that violence with guns is a health crisis is deceptive. It is a violence problem. Dubbing certain kinds of violence as a health crisis is an intentionally dishonest framing of the issue. It is mendacity masquerading as journalism, prevarication for a purpose.
No. 2. We pledge to allocate the time and resources needed to cover this crisis.
Gun violence is a constant through line of American life. It can impact any of us, at any time. But newspaper resources treat it like a rarity. We will re-prioritize gun violence in our newsrooms, carving out… time, staffing, education tools, and budget to make comprehensive gun violence coverage a reality.
Translation: “We at CJR are going to let our agenda drive our reporting.” Do readers want agendas, or news? The two tend to be mutually exclusive, and budget allocation is not a reporter’s function.
No. 3. We pledge to acknowledge and address racist coverage.
Coverage of gun violence in most American media ignores the disproportionate impact on communities of color; it treats shooters and victims differently, depending on their race; it foregrounds the narrative provided by law enforcement. We will put an end to this practice, including more often highlighting the voices of people in the communities most affected, and standardizing the terms and definitions used in our coverage.
This pledge raises one of the main issues of criminal violence. Data shows criminal violence disproportionately affects the lower socio-economic sectors, coinciding largely with areas populated by people of color. The media conceals the fact that only 75 counties of the 3,054 counties in the U.S. actually have a violence problem. This is largely due to gang and drug-related crime, committed mainly by people of color against other people of color. The sanitized CJR language fails to make this obvious.
Journalism needs to return to fundamental fact reporting and truth telling. “News” media must:
(1) Report facts in an unbiased way. Cover the inconvenient truths.
(2) Fairly report positive as well as negative uses of guns, especially the legitimate, defensive and sporting uses of guns.
(3) Clearly separate opinion from fact, and clearly state the source of facts and the sponsors of organizations being sought for facts. Operations like The Trace, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Michael Bloomberg anti-gun enterprise, are not journalistic in nature, but are treated by CJR as if they are journalistic.
(4) Commit to reporting stories based on all of the facts, all facets of the gun industry, and the social utility of guns, the lopsided ethnicities of the people involved in gun abuse, and the steadfast refusal of the education establishment to cover even the most rudimentary aspects of gun safety, history or gun sports.
(5) Inform the public that police are under absolutely no legal duty to protect individual citizens. (e.g., Dial 911 and Die, Richard W. Stevens, Mazel Freedom Press, covering no-duty-to-protect statutes in all 50 states; Castle Rock v. Gonzalez (SCOTUS, 2005, no duty to enforce restraining order); Warren v. D.C. (1981, Police have no duty to protect an individual).
(6) Stop sensationalizing violence. Sign on to the Don’t Inspire Evil Initiative, and “Refrain from gratuitous or repetitious portrayal of mass murderers’ names and images.” –JPFO. Endless loops of these villains serves no one but the villains. Do not publicize the names of criminal perpetrators. “We must starve terrorists of the oxygen of publicity which they seek.” –Margaret Thatcher
Charles Heller, a founding member of the preeminent political lobby, The Arizona Citizens Defense League, responsible in large measure for that state’s consistent top national rank for gun rights, has been a journalist since running his high school’s 7,000-circ. newspaper, followed by employment with the Chicago Tribune and 23 years as a radio talk-show host in Tucson.