Dr. Michael S. Brown
December 22, 1999
Guns are a sad fact of life in American culture and are a major topic in modern journalism. A good Journalist has a duty to get involved and make a difference in this important societal debate. By following certain guidelines, the concerned Journalist can be assured of having the maximum impact on this shameful problem.
The first principle to remember is that subtle use of terminology can covertly influence the reader. Adjectives should be chosen for maximum anti-gun effect. When describing a gun, attach terms like “automatic,” “semi-automatic,” “large caliber,” “deadly,” “high powered,” or “powerful”. Almost any gun can be described by one or more of these terms. More than two guns should be called an “arsenal”.
Try to include the term “assault weapon” if at all possible. This can be combined with any of the terms above for best results. Nobody actually knows what an assault weapon is, so you cannot be criticized for this usage. Your local anti-gun organization can provide you with a list of the latest buzz words like “junk guns,” “Saturday Night Specials,” and “the criminal’s weapon of choice”.
Don’t worry about getting technical details right. Many a reporter has accidentally written about semi-automatic revolvers or committed other minor errors. Since most people know little about guns, this is not a problem. Only the gun nuts will complain and they don’t count. The emotional content of your article is much more important than the factual details, since people are more easily influenced through their emotions than through logic.
Broadcast Journalists should have a file tape showing a machine gun firing on full automatic. Run this video while describing “automatic” weapons used in a crime or confiscated by police. At the least, a large graphic of a handgun should be displayed behind the on-air personality when reading any crime story.
Do not waste words describing criminals who use guns to commit crimes. Instead of calling them burglar, rapist, murderer, or repeat offender, simply use the term “gunman”. This helps the public associate all forms of crime and violence with the possession of guns.
Whenever drug dealers are arrested, guns are usually confiscated by the police. Mention the type and number of guns more prominently than the type and quantity of drugs. Include the number of rounds of ammunition seized, since the number will seem large to those who know little about guns. Obviously, the drug dealers who had the guns should now be called “gunmen”.
Political discussions on gun control legislation usually involve pro-gun organizations. Always refer to these organizations as “the gun lobby“. If space permits, mention how much money the gun lobby has spent to influence political campaigns and describe their legislative lobbying efforts as “arm twisting” or “threats”.
Gun owners must never be seen in a positive light. Do not mention that these misguided individuals may actually be well educated, or have respectable jobs and healthy families. They should be called “gun nuts” if possible or simply gun owners at best. Mention details about their clothing, especially if they are wearing hunting clothes or hats. Mention the simplistic slogans on their bumper stickers to show that their intelligence level is low. Many gun owners drive pickup trucks, hunt and live in rural areas. Use these details to help portray them as ignorant rednecks. Don’t use the word “hunt”. Always say that they “kill” animals.
Don’t be afraid to interview these people, they are harmless even though we don’t portray them that way. Try to solicit comments that can be taken out of context to show them in the worst possible light.
Never question the effectiveness of gun control laws or proposals. Guns are evil and kill people. Removing guns from society can only be good. Nobody really uses guns for legitimate self-defense, especially women or children. Any stories about armed self-defense must be minimized or suppressed.
Be careful about criticizing the police for responding slowly to 911 calls for help. It is best if the public feels like the police can be relied upon to protect them at all times. If people are buying guns to protect their families, you are not doing your job.
Emphasize stories where people kill family members and/or themselves with guns. It is important to make the public feel like they could lose control and start killing at any moment if they have a gun in the house. Any story where a child misuses a gun is front page material.
View every shooting as an event to be exploited. Always include
emotional quotes from the victim’s family if possible. If they are not available, the perpetrator’s family will do nicely. The quote must blame the tragedy on the availability of guns. Photos or video of grieving family members are worth a thousand facts. Most people will accept the assertion that guns cause crime. It is much easier than believing that some people deliberately choose to harm others.
Your story should include terms like “tragic” or “preventable” and mention the current toll of gun violence in your city or state. Good reporters always know exactly how many gun deaths have occurred in their area since the first of the year. List two or three previous incidents of gun violence to give the impression of a continuing crime wave.
Little space should be devoted to shootings where criminals kill each other. Although these deaths greatly inflate the annual gun violence numbers, they distract from the basic mission of urging law abiding citizens to give up their guns. Do not dig too deeply into the reasons behind shootings. The fact that a gun was involved is the major point, unless someone under 18 is affected, in which case the child angle is now of equal importance.
Any article about gun violence should include quotes from anti-gun organizations or politicians. One quote should say that we must do something “for the children”. Anti-gun spokespersons should be called “activists” or “advocates”. If your employer wishes to appear unbiased, you can include one token quote from a gun lobby group to show that you are being fair. The anti-gun statements should be accepted as fact. The gun lobby statement can be denigrated by including text like, “according to gun lobbyist Jones.”
Fortunately, statements from anti-gun organizations come in short sound bites that are perfect for generating an emotional response in the reader or viewer. Gun lobby statements usually contain boring facts that are easy to ignore.
Feel secure in your advocacy journalism. The vast majority of your fellow Journalists support your activism. The nation will be a better place when only the police and military have guns. Remember that you are doing it for the children so the end justifies the means.
Eventually, the government will have a monopoly on power. Don’t worry about the right to freedom of the press, just contact me then for more helpful hints.
Professor Michael Brown
School of Journalism, Brady Chair