Targeting the Media's Anti-gun Bias  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features :    FIRST PERSON    
From AJR,   July/August 2001

Targeting the Media's Anti-gun Bias   

One journalist teaches his colleagues about guns by taking them to the shooting range.

By Michael Bane
Michael Bane is the author of 20 books, including "Over the Edge: A Regular Guy''s Odyssey in Extreme Sports" and "Trail Safe." His articles have appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, Men''s Journal, Men''s Fitness, National Geographic Adventure and other publications.     


S O I'M DOING WHAT magazine writers are always doing--pitching articles--this time to one of my regular clients, a top men's magazine. I'd finished pitching and was winding up the conversation when the editor interrupted.

"There's one thing I'd like for you to explain to me," the editor said. "We send you to cool places and pay you a lot of money. You're one of our guys, one of us..."

I warily agreed.

"Can you explain to me about the guns?" he said.

Ah, I thought, the guns. Since this was one of the largest outdoor sports magazines in the country, I'd suggested a story on sport shooters. I'd also mentioned that I'd been a competitive pistol shooter for 15 years. "I'm a competitor," I told my editor. "I race bicycles, do triathlons, climb mountains. I'm also a shooter. I shoot because it's fun."

"Bullshit," he replied.

Which is how I came to have what is laughingly referred to as "the most nightmarish job in the gun culture."

I'm the guy who deals with the national media. I teach reporters, editors and correspondents to shoot. And in the year-and-a-half since, with the backing of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), I've been running media seminars. I've come to some very unsettling conclusions about the relationship between reporters and guns. In fact, I believe the media--print and electronic--may be the single biggest casualty in the three decades of this "shooting war."

First, the seminars. NSSF brings together journalists and shooting sports champions for one-on-one instruction. The seminars are not specifically political, but, as I make clear to potential participants, no subjects are off-limits. In our first five seminars, we've had reporters from the Wall Street Journal and other national dailies, top writers for such publications as Newsweek, Outside, Men's Fitness and other magazines and electronic journalists of various stripe.

For people who are part of the gun culture, the results have been amazing. At the beginning of the seminars, almost all the journalists are anti-gun, to one degree or another, some virulently so. By the end there's a huge turnaround. How huge? Several of our participants have actually purchased guns and started competitive shooting.

"You're not the Michigan Militia," said one reporter for a national daily. "You're the kind of people I'd hang out with. Heck, you're the kind of people I'd date."

You're thinking, "That's great--they're breaking down stereotypes on both sides of the fence." But a-year-and-a-half of seminars has confirmed a simple truth--there is an overwhelming anti-gun bias among journalists, a bias that has spread from opinion to factual coverage of the issue.

Let me throw some numbers out.

A study by the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, found that during a two-year period (July 1, 1997, to June 30, 1999), ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN ran 357 stories in favor of gun control, compared with 36 against, a ratio of almost 10 to one. The biggest "offender" was ABC's "Good Morning America," which ran 92 anti-gun stories and one pro-gun story.

A study by University of Michigan doctoral candidate Brian A. Patrick, released in June 1999, found that the National Rifle Association was portrayed negatively in editorial and op-ed pieces 87 percent of the time (as opposed to 52 percent negative collectively for four other citizens' lobbying groups, including the NAACP and ACLU). More ominously, Patrick's study documented a clear anti-gun bias in the news coverage of the NRA by comparing things such as use of descriptive language, use of quotes and use of photos.

Most telling to me are the journalists who are not allowed to attend the NSSF seminars. In one case, a journalist had agreed to come. He said he had argued with his producers that there was a need to balance their coverage of firearms. Later in the week, he called to cancel, and after extracting a promise to never reveal his name or media outlet, said that his producers had nixed his visit on the grounds that they were "unwilling to present any positive firearms stories," and the best way to do that was just not assign any journalists to stories that could turn out to have a pro-gun spin. We talked for a long time, because he clearly felt he had walked into an ethical dilemma--which, of course, he had. Substitute "Hispanic" or "Democrat" for "firearms" in the above quote and try to imagine the political firestorm that would result.

In the end, he didn't attend: "They made it clear to me that my job was on the line," he said. A newbie reporter at a metropolitan daily? Nope--a veteran national political correspondent, whose name you would recognize, working for one of the most prestigious national news outlets in the country. And his is not an isolated case.

What is going on here? Do the time-honored rules of journalistic objectivity apply in every case except firearms? Have we, as journalists, reached such an overwhelming consensus that "guns are bad" that we're willing to look the other way while a journalistic tradition that's taken more than a hundred years to build is methodically disassembled?

After one of the seminars, a writer for a national newsweekly asked for a few minutes of my time. He had, coincidentally, covered the Columbine tragedy and had approached the seminar with open skepticism.

"I now understand why you guys hate us so much," he told me. "We get everything wrong, don't we?"

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