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 Special Report

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Chairman, Media Research Center
On "Outgunned: How the Network News Media Are
Spinning the Gun Control Debate"

National Press Club, Washington, DC
January 5, 2000

     The MRC’s newest Special Report, "Outgunned: How The Network News Media Are Spinning the Gun Control Debate" covers the period of June 1,1997 through June 30, 1999. This time frame is significant because during this two-year period, nine shootings occurred at U.S. schools — including the worst at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Each of them rocked the nation.

     Overnight, Dylan Klebold, Kip Kinkel and the other schoolyard killers were transformed into household names, while Americans — particularly parents of school-age kids like me — wondered what could be done. So did the media.

     MRC analyzed the morning and evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, looking specifically at their handling of stories on gun policy, not the gun crimes. In "Outgunned," we report a finding of 653 stories on gun policy. Right off the bat, the 653 news segments on a single policy question — even as compared to taxation, education, or health care — is staggering, and in the wake of the unprecedented school shootings, understandable. But the overwhelming bias wasn’t.

     Of the 653 TV "news" segments on gun policy on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, 393, or 60%, clearly crossed the line from reporting to public policy advocacy. Of those 393 segments that advocated a position on gun control, 357 or 91% advocated increased federal gun control. Only 36 news segments opposed it. That translates into an astounding 10-to-1 ratio of news segments advocating more gun control — hardly what any objective observer would consider balance.

     Looking at morning news segments on ABC, CBS and NBC, MRC analysts found gun policy segments advocated more gun control, as opposed to enforcing criminal laws or other solutions, by a ratio of 13-to-1.

     Nightly news on the Big Three plus CNN did little better with an 8-to-1 ratio of news stories advocating gun control.

     It’s clear that when it comes to the gun debate, TV news is no objective referee. It is a partisan player that has chosen sides — the anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment side.

     Either that, or the news division heads of ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN think that a presentation of views on a matter of vital public policy can be fair and balanced if it favors one side over the other by a ratio of 10 to one.

     Let’s focus on morning news programs.

     Our analysis of bias in the morning news programs centers on two criteria. First, MRC news analysts counted the number of pro- and anti-gun statements of reporters. Stories with a disparity of greater than 1½-to-1 were deemed biased, then classified as either for or against gun control.

     ABC’s Good Morning America was the worst. GMA did 93 news segments on gun policy. Of those 93, 92 or 99.7% advocated more gun control laws; one didn’t. This is outrageous. NBC’s Today was second-worst, with 82 news segments advocating gun control compared to 10 opposing it. CBS’s This Morning came in at 19 to 4, or 79%.

     Then we looked at the number of appearances by guests advocating gun control compared to the number of guests opposing it.

     Morning news programs were almost twice as likely to feature guests who advocated gun control as those who opposed it. In fact, gun control advocates appeared on the live morning shows 82 times, compared to just 37 appearances for gun control opponents.

     On a network-by-network basis, ABC’s Good Morning America was again the most unfair, featuring anti-gun guests 4 times as often as pro-gun guests for a total of 33 to 8. Today and This Morning were tied for second place, with an anti-gun/pro-gun guest split of 40 to 24 and 9 to 5, respectively.

     Ladies and gentlemen, TV morning news programs are important for one reason: 13 million Americans watch them. These 13 million people view themselves as being on a first-name basis with the anchors, even considering them friends with whom they start their day. So when these friends — whether they be Katie and Matt or the other news anchors — promote one side of a debate 13 times for every 1 time they promote the other side, a none-so-subtle message comes through.

     If the morning news programs are significant because 13 million people watch them, then evening news programs are even more important because 30 million Americans watch the evening news on ABC, CBS, NBC or CNN.

     Starting with an analysis of segment bias, MRC’s research showed there were 184 evening news segments on gun policy that advocated a position. Of those 184, 164 or 89% advocated gun control, while only 20 or 11% opposed it. That’s an 8-to-1 ratio of nightly news segments favoring more gun control.

     The network-by-network breakdown is as follows: ABC’s World News Tonight again was the worst offender, broadcasting 43 news segments advocating gun control to only 3 segments opposing it, for a ratio of over 9-to-1. CBS Evening News was the second worst, advocating gun control in 28 news segments as compared to just three segments opposing it, for a ratio of 9-to-1. The third worst was CNN’s The World Today, which put in a showing of 50 gun policy segments advocating gun control to seven that opposed it. NBC Nightly News was the best — that is to say, the least imbalanced — but it’s a sad day for balance when "the best" means bias of 5 to 1. During the study period, Nightly News broadcast 43 segments advocating gun control, compared to eight that opposed it.

     When it comes to soundbites, the nightly news equivalent of morning news guests, the bias was expressed by a 2-to-1 ratio of soundbites advocating gun control. The combined numbers were 296 advocates compared to 150 opponents.

     Compared to other nightly news programs, CNN’s The World Today was the worst. It broadcast 98 soundbites that advocated gun control, compared to 40 that opposed it. ABC’s World News Tonight was the second worst. It broadcast 125 soundbites that advocated gun control compared to 62 that opposed it. NBC Nightly News broadcast soundbites from 130 gun control advocates compared to just 72 opponents. CBS Evening News was the least biased, broadcasting 59 soundbites advocating gun control compared to 35 opposing, but again, heralding an imbalance of 59 to 35 speaks volumes on just how low network news has fallen.

     The MRC Special Report "Outgunned" proves that when it comes to the gun control debate, the network news bias is simply numerically irrefutable.

     The bias wouldn’t be of such concern were it on the issue of whether Beanie Babies should continue to be manufactured in 2000. But we’re talking about bias regarding a public policy issue that can literally be a matter of life and death.

     The MRC has three recommendations.

     First, network news segments exploring gun policy should present debates, not propaganda. Gun policy stories ought to aspire to educate, not indoctrinate, and do so in a fair, balanced fashion. When a show like Good Morning America airs 92 segments advocating gun control and only one opposing it, ABC is clearly not trying to balance the news.

     Second, network news programs should select themes from both sides, not just the pro-control camp. More time should be devoted to an examination of the programs that have proven track records in dropping crime rates, like Project Exile; the effects of concealed weapons laws; even, yes, the positive uses of weapons in self-defense. To achieve balance, reporters should explore gun-rights advocates’ opposition to additional gun laws that criminals may ignore, and their view that new laws infringe further on the rights of the responsible gun owner.

     Third and finally, gun policy stories should provide factual context in the debate over changing current gun laws instead of loaded emotional anecdotes and phrases. In discussing proposed changes to current laws, most news stories include a reference to current law — for example, if the issue is drunk driving policy, a news story might summarize a proposal by saying the proposal would lower the blood-alcohol standard from .1 (current) to .09 (proposed). Similarly, gun policy stories should reference current federal gun law to illustrate the practical implications of the proposed change.

     The gun control debate is an important one — constitutionally, criminologically, politically, and even personally for the tens of millions of Americans who own guns and the millions who feel threatened by them. TV news, and all those involved in it, have a duty to inform, not indoctrinate, on this issue — and that duty starts now.




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