The Media’s Intentional Bias Against Guns

The Media’s Intentional Bias Against Guns

Jeff Johnson Congressional Bureau Chief

The author of the most comprehensive and controversial research on civilian use of firearms against criminals defended his latest work in Washington on Monday.

Dr. John Lott is an economist and former Yale University School of Law researcher best known for his book More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws. In that book, he detailed research arguing “allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes, without increasing accidental deaths.”

Lott — now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank — said Monday that he understands why some negative stories about the use of guns get more coverage than stories about people using guns to stop crimes.

“Suppose you’re the director of a news bureau, and you have two stories. In one case, there’s a dead body on the ground, a sympathetic person, a victim,” Lott began. “In the other case, let’s say, a woman has brandished a gun, the would-be attacker has run away, no shots are fired, no dead body on the ground, no crime actually committed.

“I think virtually anybody who would look at that would find the first news story to be considered a lot more newsworthy than the second,” he continued.

The research Lott conducted appears to support this thesis. In an examination of New York Times stories from 2001, Lott found 104 articles related to the use of guns by criminals, totaling 50,745 words. He excluded court case coverage, crimes committed with bb or pellet guns, guns recovered at crime scenes but not used in the crime under investigation, wrongful shootings by police and the illegal transportation or sale of guns.

By contrast, the national “newspaper of record” wrote 163 words about the defensive use of a gun by a citizen in only one story. The results were similar for USA Today, which reported 5,660 words on criminal use of guns but no reporting on the use of guns to stop crimes, and the Washington Post, which devoted 46,884 words to the criminal use of firearms and 953 words to their defensive use by law-abiding citizens.

Paul Waldman, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is “no question there is a bias in media coverage of issues relating to crime and guns,” but he argued that the bias is toward newsworthiness, not against guns.

“It has a bias for the event over the non-event, the thing that actually happened as opposed to the thing that never happened, for the violent over the placid, for the dramatic over the mundane,” Waldman said.

“That, I think, is the most important reason why there’s so much more news about things like murders, when guns are actually used, than when they are not used or when they are used in a way that doesn’t actually result in anyone’s death or injury,” he said.

Lack of newsworthiness apparently not the deciding factor

But in his latest book, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You’ve Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong, Lott asserts that supposed lack of newsworthiness does not explain why the establishment media fail to report when already noteworthy crimes-in-progress are stopped by armed citizens.

“My guess is, for example, few people would realize, and understandably so, that about a third of the public school shootings were stopped by citizens with guns well before the police were able to arrive,” Lott said Monday.

“If you go through and do news searches on those cases, you’ll find that only about 1 percent or fewer of the stories on those specific cases will mention that a gun was used to stop the attack,” he said. “That particular part of the story seems to be systematically left out of the coverage.”

Lott pointed to a January 2003 attack at Virginia’s Appalachian Law School in which Peter Odighizuwa, a disgruntled student, allegedly shot and killed the school’s dean, a professor and a fellow student on campus before being subdued by two armed students.

Upon hearing gunfire, students Mikael Gross and Tracy Bridges ran to their vehicles, retrieved their handguns, returned and pointed them at Odighizuwa. They then ordered the attacker to drop his gun, which he did, and students then tackled the disarmed gunman and, after a short scuffle, restrained him until police arrived several minutes later.

“If you do a… computerized search of news stories around the country, you’ll find in the one week after the attack well over 200 separate stories about the incident,” Lott said. “However, only four mention the students having a gun in any way, and only two of those four mention that the students actually used their guns to stop the attack.”

The Washington Post, for example, wrote that: “students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived.” New York’s Newsday explained that: “The attacker was restrained by the students.” Other accounts erroneously reported that: “students tackled the man while he was still armed.”

“Given that something is already newsworthy, why is it that this one particular aspect of the event is left out?” Lott asked.

“I think it’s hard to explain it on the basis of newsworthiness. I would guess that saying students ‘subdued’ an attacker, or ‘restrained’ him, or ‘pounced on’ the attacker,” he argued, “is probably going to be less gripping to readers than if you were to say that they used a gun to do it.”

False impression from reporting on children killed with guns

Lott also argues that reporting on children accidentally killed with firearms is also misleading.

“The impression that we would get… is that surely we’re talking about young kids who die from accidental gunshots in the home, and that we’re talking about something that is essentially at epidemic type rates,” Lott said. “[But] in 1999, the last year for which data was available when I did the book, there were 31 accidental gun deaths in the United States involving kids under age 10.

“If you break down these 31 cases, there were actually six cases in the United States in that year where a child under 10 either accidentally shot themselves to death or another child,” he added.

Again, Waldman acknowledged the apparent bias but attributed it to the desire to grab an audience’s attention, not a bias against guns.

“Kids are used by journalists as kind of an easy device to lend emotion and drama to their news,” he said.

“You wonder why children getting shot gets more attention than other kinds of death,” Waldman continued. “I think it’s because it’s tragic and violent and dramatic all at the same time, and these are all things that news is drawn to.”

But Lott believes the unbalanced media coverage contributes to public acceptance of the false statistic created by anti-gun groups that “nine children are killed by guns every day.”

According to data in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, achieving the “nine children a day” number would require including “children” as old as 24 years of age, depending on the year chosen for analysis. More than 50 percent of that nine per day are young adults who successfully attempt suicide.

Of the remaining shooting victims 17 to 24 years of age, 70 percent were actively involved in criminal activity at the time of their deaths.

The rate of true “children” dying from accidental gun deaths in law-abiding homes is “essentially zero,” Lott argued, when only accidental shootings by and of children under 10 years of age are considered.

“You’re talking about something that’s akin to children in those homes dying from lightning strikes,” Lott explained. “To the extent to which these rare [accidental shootings of children] occur, they overwhelmingly take place in… households where someone with a criminal record, an adult, is accidentally firing the gun.”

Statistics Lott gathered from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the causes of accidental deaths in children less than 10 years of age in 1999 (the latest year for which data were available when the book was being written) support his contention:

  • Motor vehicle crashes — 1260
  • Accidental residential fires — 484
  • Pedestrians killed by vehicles — 370
  • Drowning in bathtubs — 93
  • Bicycle accidents — 81
  • Accidental discharge of a firearm — 31
  • Accidental discharge of a firearm by a child under 10 years of age — 6

Looking at the data from 1995 through 1999, Lott discovered only five to nine cases per year in which a child shot him or herself or another child.

“Whether it’s five or nine or six or 31, obviously it would be far better if it were zero, but I think some perspective is needed here,” he argued. “You have to consider that there are some 90 million Americans who own guns, that you’re talking about 40 million kids in this age group.

“It’s pretty hard to think of virtually any other item that’s as commonly owned in American homes that’s anywhere near as remotely dangerous, that has as low of an accidental death rate,” Lott said. “You have as many kids, or more, who literally die being caught up in combines on farms each year as you have children accidentally killing other kids.”

Lott criticized for lack of peer review on latest research

Carlisle Moody, chairman of the economics department at the College of William and Mary, said research such as that Lott included in The Bias Against Guns should pass three tests.

“If an article actually passes the peer review test, it has been vetted in about the most careful way that science has found to do these sorts of things,” he said.

Lott acknowledged that while some of the data included in The Bias Against Guns did come from previously published peer-reviewed journals, most did not. He said he did not submit his latest research for peer review because he has seen the process produce biased results in the past.

“I’m not sure I’m convinced that refereeing prevents political views and other things from kind of going in there and showing themselves in different places,” Lott said.

He pointed to a recent paper that used subscription to the third-most popular gun magazine in the U.S. as a measure of gun ownership. When subscription rates for the most popular and second-most popular magazines were used instead, the findings of the research were altered dramatically.

“If I was a referee, I would ask, Why only look at one magazine here? Why not the largest or the fifth largest?” Lott said. “The fact that it had not would make me pretty suspicious and unlikely to go ahead and publish the paper.”

That study was not only published, Lott explained, but has also won awards from academic organizations despite its obviously flawed pretext.

Lott ‘way ahead of the competition’ on other two factors

“The second question that you should ask is,” Moody continued, “‘Did the authors make the data available for other researchers to rummage around in?'”

“The third thing we should ask is… ‘Were the requisite controls used?'” Moody said, explaining that controls isolate the effect of, in the case of Lott’s studies, the possession of concealed handguns by ordinary citizens on violent crime rates. Such controls would eliminate the effects of other factors, such as poverty or incarceration, on crime.

Moody criticized Lott for not submitting his latest work for peer review but said his compliance with the other two points more than compensates.

“On the other two criteria, he is way ahead of his competition,” Moody said. “He makes the data available, which means he is probably not cheating. I’ve checked him out; he’s not cheating, and he uses all the requisite controls. “He does it right, and so, I tend to believe the results that John has published in the back of the book.

“If you wish to be informed on the debate concerning guns and public policy,” Moody concluded, “you must have read John’s book.”