Business of News: Understanding the Subject

By: Tim Gallagher

Business of News: Understanding the Subject
I was 16 and living in New Mexico when I first saw the bumper sticker, “They can take my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead hand” on a pickup truck.

I was 56 when I read the news about the Sandy Hook School massacre on my cellphone and felt like throwing up.

Not much has changed in the positions of Americans on gun ownership in those 40 years. You could argue the positions haven’t changed in 200 years. In this corner, the ardent gun rights people who see any attempt to change the laws as the nose under the camel’s tent that will eventually lead to the loss of their weapons. In the opposite corner, people who argue that the Second Amendment was written in a very different time and place, and American needs to start controlling who can own a weapon and what type of weapon they can own.

In the middle are tens of millions of Americans who want senseless violence to end, but understand the need to protect ourselves and our rights. This middle ground is ready to cover its ears for the shouting from each of the corners. And nothing ever changes. Politicians change laws in the tiniest increments.

Can good journalism play a role in moving this debate along and helping to end violence with guns? I think so. But it is going to take some work by the journalists to overcome the skepticism.

Let’s approach the elephant in the room. People who want no change gun laws believe journalists are biased against gun owners. They are correct. But it’s worse than that. Many journalists can’t tell the difference between a bullet and a cartridge.

My first job as a police reporter ensconced me in a basement office in the police station. After he read a few of my inaccurate stories, Sgt. Armstrong in the armory next door walked over, leaned against the frame of my open door, Marlboro cigarette bobbing on his lip and said, “You don’t know shit about guns, do you?” After I admitted I did not, he took me to school. Within days I knew more about weapons and ammunition than most of the newsroom and became a recognized expert.

We simply have to do a better job understanding the subject and reporting the positions. Fortunately, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute wrote a very good column in 2012 that offers some of the basics of guns and ammunition (goo.gl/0BnXpN). It’s a fine place to start.

As always in emotional stories, journalists have to put their opinions aside and focus on fairness and accurate reporting.

Then, journalists need to concentrate on adding more light than heat to the debate. Illuminate the argument with facts and turn down the rhetoric. Carnegie-Knight News21’s “Gun Wars” has done a splendid job (goo.gl/so32og).  There are so many charts and facts boxes. Most impressive are the sidebars that list decisions and data state-by-state. The amount of work in this project is astounding.

News 21 is one of those cooperative projects that few organizations can afford to put together these days.

It is backed a half-dozen foundations and individuals, and this project was led by Jacqueline Petchel, the News 21 executive editor who was part of a Pulitzer-winning team at the Miami Herald in 1993, and Leonard Downie Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post. The website, put together by 29 college students at 16 universities, is robust reporting that—in my mind—treated the subject with disinterest and depth. There are dozens of databases and videos with surprising statistics and stories that challenge your stereotypes.

For instance:

    More people are killed by partners with guns than by criminals they do not know – but the margin of difference is small.
    Suicide by gun accounts for nearly 20,000 deaths per year, but it barely registers as a news story.
    Seven children are shot to death in America every day. Four are murdered. They are usually African American. Two children die by suicide. They are usually white. A seventh dies from an accident.

The impressive part of this report is the disinterested reporting, headline writing and editing. It is difficult to find the inflammatory buzzwords that populate the debate in America today. In most reporting, however, that’s what journalists do—gravitate toward the NRA spokesman with the most hyperbolic quote, or the crying mother who has lost her son. These people make for great TV, but they do nothing but send the sides to their corners and leave the middle with little information on which to act.

I hope for better.

Good journalism can change behavior and save lives. There is parallel offered in reporting about tobacco use. In 1965, nearly half of the adults in America smoked tobacco. Today that number is about 18 percent. Millions of lives have been saved by good, evidence-based reporting on the health dangers of smoking tobacco. To this day, the tobacco industry still tries to influence media and normalize tobacco use as a normal habit with little consequence. But there is too much fact-based reporting to allow tobacco companies to get a foothold in news media.

It’s a free country, right? You always hear that. But the job of the journalist is to accurately report on the consequences of our choices. If we turn down the volume and stay focused on the facts, Americans can make good decisions.
 

Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

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Published: December 18, 2015

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