Does News Coverage Endanger Lives?

Does News Coverage Endanger Lives?

It’s an interesting question. Are there serious consequences because of the way the media handles stories where guns are involved?

Dr. John Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says “yes.” In the April 29, 1999 issue of the Investor’s Business Daily, Dr. Lott shows how the media not only downplay the benefits of firearms, but in doing so, keep Americans ignorant as to their best form of defense.

Even though guns are used far more often in self-defense than they are in crimes, Lott has found that the media simply refuse to report these facts.

Media ignores armed hero in Mississippi

Remember the school shooting in October 1997, which left two students dead in Pearl, Mississippi? “It was stopped by Joel Myrick, an assistant principal,” Lott says. “He retrieved a gun from his car and physically immobilized the shooter for about five minutes before police arrived.

“A Lexis-Nexis search indicates that 687 articles appeared in the first month after the attack. Only 16 stories mentioned Myrick. Only a little more than half of these mentioned he used a gun to stop the attack.

“Some stories simply stated Myrick was ‘credited by police with helping capture the boy’ or that ‘Myrick disarmed the shooter.’ A later story on CBS with Dan Rather notes that ‘Myrick eventually subdued the young gunman.’ Such stories provide no explanation how Myrick accomplished this feat.”

Media ignores armed hero in Pennsylvania

The Mississippi shooting was, by no means, the only example where the positive side of firearms was conveniently omitted. Dr. Lott also points to the school-related shooting in 1998, which occurred in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and which left one teacher dead.

That shooting, Lott says, “was stopped only after James Strand, who owned a nearby restaurant, pointed a shotgun at the shooter when he started to reload his gun. The police did not arrive until 11 minutes later.

“At least 596 news stories discussed this crime during the next month, and only 35 mentioned Strand. Once again, few described how he used a gun to stop the crime. The New York Daily News explained that Strand ‘persuaded Wurst (the shooter) to surrender,’ while The Atlanta Journal wrote how he ‘chased Wurst down and held him until police came.’

“Saying that Strand ‘persuaded’ the killer makes it sound as if Strand was simply an effective speaker.”

And herein lies the danger. Might some readers of these newspapers think they could simply use mere persuasion skills to disarm a killer in a similar situation? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what would have happened to Joel Myrick or James Strand if they had tried to “reason” with the killers without having a gun themselves.

Guns save lives

The fact is, neither Myrick nor Strand was killed during their heroics because each of them had guns. “That might explain why they were ignored,” Lott opines. “Yet one suspects a more politically correct explanation — especially when the media ignore the defensive use of a gun.

“In the midst of the political and media furor, we should remember the positive uses of guns. There are many other cases where citizens with permitted concealed handguns have stopped both shootings and bombings in public places.

“Yet these heroes get even less attention than Myrick and Strand, especially when they have stopped the attacks before any victims have been harmed. If the heroes had not been there, one can be sure that these other incidents would have received national news attention because of the ensuing slaughter.

“If the ultimate question is what will save the most lives, we can’t look at just the bad things. We must also look for the bad things that don’t happen because people are able to protect themselves. Given the current state of reporting, the ‘public’s right to know’ is being betrayed.”

Accidental gunshots: a national epidemic?

Dr. Lott says that the unbalanced reporting is probably greatest in cases in which children die from accidental gunshots. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer (August 1, 2003), Dr. Lott says that, “Most people have seen the public-service ads with pictures or voices of children between the ages of four and eight, never over the age of eight, and the impression is that there is an epidemic of accidental deaths involving children.

“The truth is that in 1999, 31 children younger than 10 died from an accidental gunshot and only six of these cases appear to have involved another child under 10 as the culprit. Nor was this year unusual. Any death is tragic, but with 90-some million Americans owning guns and about 40 million children younger than 10, it is hard to think of any other product in the home that represents such a low risk to children. Indeed, more children under five drowned in bathtubs or plastic water buckets.

“Gun deaths are covered extensively as well as prominently, with individual cases getting up to 88 separate news stories. In contrast, when children use guns to save lives, the event might at most get one brief mention in a small local paper.

“As a couple of reporters told me, journalists are uncomfortable printing such positive gun stories because they worry that it will encourage children to get access to guns. The whole process snowballs, however, because the exaggeration of the risks — along with lack of coverage of the benefits — cements the perceived risks more and more firmly in newspaper editors’ and reporters’ minds. This makes them ever more reluctant to publish such stories.”

And the “Top Ten” defensive guns are…

To be fair, Dr. Lott notes that this lack of balance dominates not just the media but also government reports and polling. “Studies by the Justice and Treasury Departments have long evaluated just the cost guns impose on society. Every year, Treasury puts out a report on the top 10 guns used in crime, and each report serves as the basis for dozens of news stories. But why not also provide a report — at least once — on the top 10 guns used defensively? Similarly, numerous government reports estimate the cost of injuries from guns, but none measures the number of injuries prevented when guns are used defensively.

“But if we really want to save lives, we need to address the whole truth about guns — including the costs of not owning them. We never, for example, hear about the families who couldn’t defend themselves and were harmed because they didn’t have guns.

“Discussing only the costs of guns and not their benefits poses the real threat to public safety as people make mistakes on how best to defend themselves and their families.”