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Outgunned: How the Network News Media Are Spinning the Gun Control Debate

Introduction

Over the last two years, television network news viewers have been inundated with tragic images of students running away from gunfire. With every new incident, from Pearl, Mississippi, to Littleton, Colorado, the networks have had a reflexive reaction. They blame guns, and wonder if more gun control laws aren’t an obvious solution.

With school shootings claiming more and more network air time, Media Research Center analysts reviewed two years of news reports through the MRC’s News Tracking System on gun control policy on four evening shows (ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN’s The World Today, and NBC Nightly News) and three morning broadcasts (ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’s This Morning, and NBC’s Today) from July 1, 1997 through June 30, 1999. Not included were numerous stories on the families’ grief or crime scene investigations that did not include statements relating to gun policy.

Methodology. To assess the tilt of stories, analysts counted the number of pro- and anti-gun statements by reporters in each category. Pieces with a disparity of greater than 1.5 to 1 were categorized as either for or against gun control. Stories closer than the ratio were deemed neutral. Among statements recorded as anti-gun rights: violent crime occurs because of guns, not criminals; and gun control prevents crime. Categorized as arguments for gun rights: gun control would not reduce crime; that criminals, not guns are the problem; Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; right-to-carry concealed weapons laws caused a drop in crime. Using this story-angle method demonstrates that even in pieces where the talking head count is balanced, reporters’ statements can often end up tilting the angle of the entire story.

Using these criteria, analysts found a dramatically tilted debate in favor of gun control. In 653 gun policy stories, those advocating more gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control by 357 to 36, or a ratio of almost 10 to 1, while 260 were categorized as neutral. Anti-gun soundbites were twice as frequent as pro-gun ones—412 to 209—while 471 soundbites were neutral. Gun control advocates appeared on the morning shows as guests on 82 occasions, compared to just 37 for gun-rights activists and 58 neutral spokesmen.

When these numbers are combined with the results of a 1997 study of two years of gun policy stories using the same parameters, MRC analysts have found that in 897 gun policy stories from July 1, 1995 to June 30, 1999, the networks have aired 514 anti-gun stories to 46 pro-gun stories, or a ratio of more than 11 to 1. [See Appendix A for a complete report of numbers and percentages.]