In a two-year period, anti-gun stories outnumbered pro-gun stories by a ratio of nearly 10-to-1.
BY GEOFFREY DICKENS,
During the past two years, television network news viewers have been inundated with tragic images of students running away from gunfire. With every new incident, from Pearl, Miss., to Littleton, Co., the networks have had a reflexive reaction. They blame guns and wonder if more gun control laws aren't an obvious solution.
With school shootings claiming more and more network air time, Media Research Center analysts reviewed two years of news reports through the MRC's News Tracking System on gun control policy for four evening shows (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN's The World Today, and NBC Nightly News) and three morning broadcasts (ABC's Good Morning America, CBS's This Morning, and NBC's Today) from July 1, 1997, through June 30, 1999. Not included were numerous stories on the families' grief or crime scene investigations that did not include statements relating to gun policy.
To assess the tilt of stories, analysts counted the number of pro- and anti-gun statements by reporters in each category. Pieces with a disparity ratio of greater than 1.5-to-1 were categorized as either for or against gun control. Stories closer than the ratio were deemed neutral. Among statements recorded as anti-gun rights: Violent crime occurs because of guns, not criminals; And gun control prevents crime. Categorized as arguments for gun rights: Gun control would not reduce crime; Criminals, not guns, are the problem; Americans have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms; Right-to-carry concealed carry laws caused a drop in crime. Using this story-angle method demonstrates that even in pieces where the "talking head" count is balanced, reporters' statements can often end up tilting the angle of the entire story.
Using these criteria, analysts found a dramatically tilted debate in favor of gun control. In 653 gun policy stories, those advocating more gun control outnumbered stories opposing gun control by 357 to 36, or a ratio of nearly 10-to-1, while 260 were categorized as neutral. Anti-gun soundbites were twice as frequent as pro-gun ones--412 to 209--while 471 soundbites were neutral. Gun control advocates appeared on the morning shows as guests on 82 occasions, compared with 37 for gun-rights activists and 58 neutral spokesmen.
When these numbers were combined with the results of a 1997 study of two years of gun policy stories using the same parameters, MRC analysts found that in 897 gun policy stories from July 1, 1995, to June 30, 1999, the networks aired 514 anti-gun stories to 46 pro-gun stories, or a ratio of more than 11-to-1.
Evening News Findings
American TV viewers were bombarded by evening news stories promoting gun control. Out of 300 evening news segments, anti-gun stories outnumbered pro-gun stories by 164 to 20 (with 116 neutral segments), or an 8-to-1 ratio. Talking heads were slanted toward gun control by a 2-to-1 ratio (296 for gun control vs. 150 for gun rights) with 319 neutral spokesmen. ABC and CNN provided the worst evening news slant, while NBC was the closest to fairness--and it wasn't close.
ABC's World News Tonight was the most biased in favor of gun control, airing 43 anti-gun stories to only three pro-gun segments with 24 neutral reports. Within that sample, the talking head ratio matched the overall average of 2-to-1, with 125 gun control soundbites, 62 for gun rights and 120 neutral clips.
CNN's The World Today slanted in the direction of gun-control in 50 stories, compared with only seven having more arguments in favor of gun rights (34 were neutral). CNN's selection of talking heads advocating more gun control was the most disproportionate (98 to 40 with 79 neutral).
CBS Evening News stories promoted gun control 28 times and favored gun rights on three occasions (22 were neutral). CBS had the closest ratio of talking heads with 59 for gun control, 35 opposed and 74 neutral.
NBC Nightly News was the least imbalanced, albeit with a tilt of 5-to-1: 43 anti-gun rights stories vs. eight pro-gun rights stories with 36 neutral pieces. But three of the pro-gun stories came on one night (April 30, 1999). By a ratio of nearly 2-to-1, NBC aired gun control exponents with a count of 130 advocates to 72 opponents (and 24 neutral voices).
The network morning shows were flooded with visually arresting images from shootings. Out of 353 gun policy segments, anti-gun stories outnumbered pro-gun stories by 193 to 15, or a ratio of more than 13-to-1 (145 were neutral or balanced). Analysts counted both morning news reports and interviews.
Morning Show Findings
ABC's Good Morning America ran a total of 92 reports supporting gun control compared with just one that favored the gun-rights defense (51 were neutral).
CBS's This Morning offered 19 stories slanted toward gun control solutions to four against (with 27 neutral offerings).
NBC's Today had the greatest number of segments leaning toward gun rights--10, or two-thirds of the morning show total--but also pushed for gun control in 82 segments (88 were neutral).
Morning shows were nearly twice as likely to feature a gun control advocate than one opposed to more gun control. Gun control supporters appeared on the live morning shows 82 times, compared with 37 gun rights spokesmen. Another 58 held no pro- or anti-gun views in gun policy segments.
On Good Morning America, 33 guests professed a belief in more legislation limiting gun rights, while only eight opposed such measures, with 212 neutral guests.
NBC's Today booked three times more gun-rights guests than ABC with 24, but still invited far more gun control advocates (40), with 24 neutral spokesmen.
CBS's This Morning aired the least interviews, but was the most balanced with just nine guests for gun control, five against and 13 neutral.
The school-shooting phenomenon created both a desirable political and commercial environment for network producers, whose programs advanced gun control at the same time that these dramatic events drew higher-than-average ratings.