How The Media Sometimes Get it Wrong on Guns

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Ben Hallman, an editor of the TheTrace.org, writes in the Columbia Journalism Review about some of the problems with media coverage of gun violence. During a discussion of “bump stocks” after the Las Vegas massacre, CNN aired a photo of a rifle equipped with a grenade launcher and silencer — but not a bump stock. Right-wing media, eager to unearth evidence that gun reporting by mainstream outlets is not to be trusted, quickly pounced on the inaccurate image. Many firearms owners pride themselves on their technical know-how. When journalists get the details wrong in their reporting, those same gun owners tune out, Hallman says.

The most pernicious challenge facing any outlet that covers gun violence is one of emphasis. Mass shootings get blanket coverage of mass shootings, and daily gun violence is underreported. The most common media mistakes concern how firearms function. Journalists confuse magazines, essentially a spring-loaded box that pushes ammunition up into a gun’s chamber, with clips, small metal parts that hold rounds together in place without any moving parts. They misunderstand the effectiveness of silencers, which make gunfire less loud, but not at all quiet. In the aftermath of Las Vegas, some outlets inaccurately characterized automatic firearms as “banned” under federal law, even though tens of thousands are in private hands. (Fully automatic weapons manufactured before 1986 can be purchased legally, though obtaining one is a difficult and expensive process.) In The Trace’s newsroom, we may describe AR-15s as “semiautomatic rifles,” or sometimes “assault-style” weapons, but never as “assault rifles”—a term that typically refers to weapons with variable modes of fire, including fully automatic.

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