Expert Commentary

How the news media portray gun owners: Research to consider

We’ve gathered research to help journalists consider how they cover a group with whom some appear to have trouble relating: gun owners and people who use firearms.

Man examining revolver
(U.S. Air Force/Kidron B. Vestal)

A common criticism aimed at journalists is their tendency to portray some groups in the United States as “the other” — framing stories as though certain groups aren’t part of the world where journalists themselves and the bulk of their audiences live. Think rural America.

Scholars have documented this approach and Journalist’s Resource has created tip sheets to help newsrooms become aware of this habit and its implications. For example, several months ago, we interviewed journalist Sarah Smarsh, who writes about class and middle America, and asked her to help us explain how reporters can improve their coverage of rural communities.

Here we’ve gathered research to help journalists consider how they cover another group with whom some appear to have trouble relating: people who own and use firearms. Americans use them for hunting, sport and personal protection or collect them as a hobby. Members of both the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts of America — longstanding organizations that serve millions of children a year — learn to load and use guns.

Ben Hallman, a former deputy editor of The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on gun violence, has written about the news media’s shortcomings in this area. Reporters “frame stories in ways that make it clear they see gun-owning Americans … as distinctly other,” he explains in a piece he wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review.

According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, more than 4 in 10 U.S. adults live in a gun-owning household. In rural areas, the number is almost 6 in 10. In the Northeast, 27 percent of people live in a home with a gun, compared with 45 percent in the South.

Trent “Tate” Steidley, an assistant professor in the University of Denver’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, told Journalist’s Resource that news reports often don’t present a complete picture of gun owners.

For example, gun owners are “by and large, white, Protestant, middle-aged to older males with moderate to conservative leanings,” but news stories often fail to reflect that, said Steidley, who has studied media coverage of gun owners and teaches a course called “Guns and Society.” He said the media’s focus on gun violence in heavily populated areas makes it appear as though gun owners generally live in major cities and use their weapons to harm others.

“The types of things covered in news tend to focus on violence in big cities like Chicago and New York, but most gun owners live in rural areas,” he said in a telephone interview. “There’s a big disconnect between those two facts.”

A study published in the journal Written Communication spotlights other problems with the way gun owners are portrayed. Doug Downs, an associate professor in Montana State University’s Department of English, analyzed newspaper articles, editorials and letters to the editor from 31 major newspapers in the U.S. and Canada between October 1999 and April 2000. He found that newspapers rarely covered gun owners outside of courtrooms, morgues and protests and tended to represent them as a monolithic group. Gun owners often “are explicitly or implicitly characterized as selfish, incompetent, and irresponsible, caring more about guns than people,” Downs explains in the journal article, published in 2002.

Another key finding: Newsrooms appear to be “silencing perspectives on gun ownership that would show it more favorably than do the frames of a cosmopolitan worldview,” he writes.

A study that Steidley led looks specifically at how the news media cover the National Rifle Association (NRA). He and his co-author, Cynthia Colen, an associate professor at Ohio State University, examined how the New York Times responded to press releases from the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence between January 2000 and June 2011. Their findings indicate that press release packages from the Brady Campaign resonate more with the Times, and that the newspaper is willing to share information to facilitate the efforts of the Brady Campaign but not the NRA.

When Steidley and Colen examined press releases from the Brady Campaign, they found that an increase of one press release per week containing a message emphasizing the tragic outcomes of gun violence improved the odds of Brady being included in the Times’ coverage by 52.2 percent. An increase of one Brady press release per week announcing administrative information — annual meetings and conventions, for instance — increased the odds the organization would be included in coverage by 56.1 percent, according to the study, published in Social Science Quarterly in 2017.

Meanwhile, “regardless of the type or frequency of packages used in weekly NRA press releases, press releases do not predict media coverage of the NRA,” the authors write.

“It may be that the Brady Campaign packages are more effective because rights to safety and firearm regulation are likely to resonate with urban residents,” the researchers write. “On the other hand, packages used in NRA press releases framing gun ownership as normal are meant to reverberate with rural residents in ‘middle America.’ Such findings would confirm … [earlier research] finding that NYT reporters covering the NRA have little resonance with its culture, and have little desire to understand it.”

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health take issue with the media’s portrayal of one type of gun user: Mass shooters who appear to have a serious mental illness (SMI). A research team led by Emma “Beth” McGinty, deputy director of John Hopkins’ Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research, analyzed a random sample of 1,280 print and broadcast news stories about mental illness and gun violence between 1997 and 2012.

Here’s what they found: Fewer than 10 percent of the news stories examined mention five key facts about SMI — that most people with SMI are not violent, for example, and that predicting violence among people with SMI is difficult.

“News media coverage of gun violence by persons with SMI may lead the public to view SMI as an important cause of gun violence, when in reality other factors — such as criminals’ easy access to firearms — are more strongly associated with violent crime,” McGinty and her colleagues write in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014. “Even though this heightened public attention to the issue may raise public support for gun violence prevention policies, it may also exacerbate negative attitudes about persons with SMI.”

Steidley suggested journalists read The National Rifle Association and the Media: The Motivating Force of Negative Coverage, a book written by the late Brian Anse Patrick, who was a scholar of propaganda and tenured professor of communication at the University of Toledo. While Patrick was openly pro-gun and sharply critical of the mainstream press — and those biases are evident in the book — his research is based on work he completed for his doctoral dissertation, reviewed by a team of faculty at the University of Michigan.

Included in the book are interviews with journalists, which offer a look at how some members of the media view and approach gun issues.


Looking for more research on guns? Check out our write-ups on concealed carry on college campuses and how state policy affects how guns move between states.

Some other resources that may be helpful:

  • This 2017 report from the Pew Research Center examines gun ownership in the U.S. and Americans’ attitudes toward gun ownership.
  • This 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office looks at how often U.S. Attorney’s Offices prosecute people who give false information on firearm-related background checks. In fiscal year 2017, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) referred about 12,700 cases for investigation. Of those, 12 had been prosecuted as of June 2018.
  • The ATF publishes reports on the number of firearms manufactured and exported each year. In 2017, federally licensed manufacturers made 3.6 million pistols, 713,577 revolvers, 2.5 million rifles and 635,239 shotguns, according to ATF data.

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