BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been 3 weeks since we last did a show that led with a mass shooting. It was after ten people were killed in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York. Since then, 49 mass shootings have happened in the U.S. Amid a deepening sense of mayhem and woe. Did we feel that way back in August of 2019, on the heels of two shooting rampages days apart in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio? I can't even remember. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote then about journalists and mass shootings that even when it happens twice in a 24 hour period, even when the death tolls soar into the dozens, we reflexively spring into action. We describe the horror of what happened. We profile the shooter. We tell about the victims lives. We get reactions from public officials, she wrote. It's difficult. Gut wrenching work for journalists on the scene. And then there's the next one and the next one. If journalism is supposed to be a positive force in society, and we know it can be, this is doing no good. Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian. She's covered gun violence for the paper for many years. She says that mainstream coverage of the issue is flawed because it's focused mainly on one type of tragedy. She explained to me when I spoke to her three years ago, and things haven't much changed, how better coverage would mean focusing on the root causes of gun violence.
LOIS BECKETT Our whole gun violence conversation is driven by mass shootings, which are incredibly horrific and statistically still even now, very rare events. If you look at the people who are dying from gunshot wounds in this country, it is primarily people dying from suicide. That's two thirds of it and people dying in every-day shootings in local cities and places where there has been concentrated gun violence for decades. And mass shooting victims make up maybe one or 2%. So we continue to have the same conversation over and over, trying to prevent 1% of people from dying and not caring about the other 99%.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have for a long time been an advocate of solutions in the coverage. How do you propose incorporating solutions?
LOIS BECKETT So when we talk about solutions, journalism, I think what we're saying is we want to push back against the inaccurate biases of our readers, of our listeners, that nothing can be done, that nothing is possible. I don't think we need to overstate claims, but I think it's really important that we're accurate about what we do know about what works to save lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When we examined solutions journalism, one thing that a very strong advocate, Tina Rosenberg, told us is that it's not always about solutions that work. Sometimes it's solutions that don't.
LOIS BECKETT If you think about the single policy that's getting the most attention right now as part of America's gun control debate, it's whether or not the country should ban military style assault weapons and whether there should be even a mandatory buyback of the assault weapons that Americans currently own. And the fact is, two things are true at the same time. It is undeniable that guns, like the AR 15, are a fetish object for mass shooters that have been used in one terrible public mass shooting after another. And it is also true that handguns have always been responsible for the overwhelming majority of gun homicides. Americans are having fierce and furious debate about whether to ban the kind of gun that is not used in the majority of gun murders.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said we have no gun registry. That's another proposal. If we license people to drive cars, why not to use guns? And then, of course, the common sense legislation that people referred to like universal background checks. There's the red flagging issue. Which of these do you think would be helpful or do you think none of them are?
LOIS BECKETT So if we talk about policies that have more science behind them, extreme risk protection orders, which are sometimes called red flag laws, are really promising. Conservatives are more open to them. The laws are based not on the government knowing when someone is dangerous or not, but on the judgment of someone who is closest to a person at risk, whether that's law enforcement, family members, people at school or coworkers. And the idea is that the bar for getting your gun rights removed permanently under federal law is really high. And the thing about extreme risk protection orders are they don't remove your gun rights forever. The idea is that it tries to line up the law more closely with when people are actually in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. And the second reason that this policy is so good is that it's gotten a lot of attention because of mass shootings, but it tends to be used most often to help people who are suicidal. And that's so important because gun suicide is two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States. And so rather than a policy that's just driven by the rarest kind of violence, these extreme risk protection orders are actually relevant to the most publicized and well known kinds of violence and the kinds of violence that's actually hurting the most people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Don't you think, though, that the media's focus on school shootings and other high death toll tragedies prompt more outrage and potential for change than suicides and domestic homicides say that may be less relatable to the people who might push to make changes.
LOIS BECKETT So there's two ways of looking at that. One is more optimistic. One is the fact that, you know, after Sandy Hook, there were a lot of suburban white parents who did not think that gun violence was relevant to them at all, who started getting involved in the gun control movement. And as part of doing that, they began to learn that gun violence didn't look like they thought it did. I talked to a woman in suburban Indianapolis who met a black mom from the center of Indianapolis and realized that, you know, the way that that mom's son got shot didn't meet her expectations of what gun violence looked like. And so that the fact of people getting involved in activism, no matter what brings them in, that you learn through that. But on the other hand, if you were trying to fix a problem and you are fighting for the wrong solutions, that getting more people involved to advocate for things that even might be counterproductive is incredibly dangerous. There is so much tremendous focus on school safety and fortifying schools and surveilling students and adding video cameras and watching what students are doing online. Almost none of this has any evidence behind it. And the best thing that we know is that more police in school and more surveillance in school and spending a lot of money to turn schools into bunkers has actually led to more violence, has made students less safe. And it's all been done by parents who want to protect their children and they are doing the wrong things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've written about the changes that Columbine made. The school shooting in our era.
LOIS BECKETT Columbine really fueled a focus on zero tolerance policies in schools and continue to push to put police officers in schools to protect students from extremely rare school shootings. What researchers and activists have found is that that appeared to disproportionately affect students of color, to have fueled the school to prison pipeline. The attempt to make American kids safer by putting police officers in schools seems to have just left a lot of kids in the criminal justice system, and that doesn't make anybody safer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the solution reported by NBC Nightly News on a $48 million school that's, quote, designed to deter active shooters? In Fruitport, Michigan.
NEWS REPORT No more lockers in the hallways. Instead, short lockers in a common area so teachers can see 900 students at once.
SCHOOL OFFICIAL And we also installed these wing walls to provide safety for students to hide behind if there's a threat down the hallway.
NEWS REPORT A grant from Michigan State Police paid for impact resistant film on the windows and a special system to lock down specific sections of the school. [END CLIP]
LOIS BECKETT That kind of credulous coverage that accepts the false belief that children are most at risk of being shot in schools is incredibly dangerous. There are 1300 American school aged kids who die every year from gunshot wounds, 700 from gun homicides, 500 from gun suicides, about 90 from gun accidents. And if you look at the data going back for decades, schools are actually the place where American kids are least likely to get shot. Of all school age homicides going back for 20 years, less than 2% of those are in schools. And so what we have right now is a society in which kids are getting shot in their homes and in their neighborhoods and they're safest at school. And our response to that is to design barricaded fortresses of schools.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do you think the press should be reporting on? What do you want to see in the coverage?
LOIS BECKETT I think one of the things that journalists really can do is focus on solutions, but also focusing on what their individual readers, or listeners, have the power to do. Because if you talk to longtime gun violence prevention advocates, people like Nicole Hockley, who lost her son at Sandy Hook, they will say that the biggest enemy really isn't the National Rifle Association or gun rights advocates. It's the cynicism and exhaustion of everyday Americans who just don't see any evidence that anything can be done to help except maybe buying a gun to protect their own families because there's nothing else that they see that they have power to do. And so I think we not only need to focus more on policy and things that are working, but also think more about providing people with information like what do you do if you're worried about someone in your life? Because what we do know about mass shootings is that there are almost always red flags, that people are nervous, that people thought something was wrong. But people also don't want to hurt someone. That they care about and they just don't know who to go to for help. And so I think we need to do a lot more work and trying to think how do we serve not just people who are watching these shootings, terrified at home, but what journalism are we providing for the people who have a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs, who think something is wrong and they don't know what to do?
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if you were going to issue a guide to journalists covering this issue, what would you suggest? The three things they should stop doing and the three things they should start doing.
LOIS BECKETT I think the most important thing for good journalism on this issue is to challenge people's fears and conceptions and to see what violence actually looks like in this country. Fact checking, all of these different school safety measures, talking very particular terms about what kinds of guns are actually most dangerous in the circumstances in which people die, so that you can look at the coverage and say, is this coverage pushing back at my assumptions about what's happening, my assumptions about what will make the most difference. Does this coverage include solutions? Am I learning about the different things that people are trying to make a difference in this issue? And also, is it honest about when solutions don't actually work that well, that not all gun control laws might be that helpful? Is this coverage looking at the big picture because that's a real public health approach to gun violence. It's not just about legislative action. There are a lot of different methods and approaches to this. One of the frightening things is just the knowledge that with the more violence that there is in the media, with the more focus there is on these horrific acts that we are seeing that encourages more Americans to arm themselves. And that means that then the rare incidents in which someone misuses the gun that they own with domestic violence or with suicide, that those might be increasing. And so it's hard to look at this and know that what we're seeing now is a continued escalation. And what we really need to do with this whole issue with the media and everyone else is de-escalate and remind ourselves the reasons that we have to trust each other and not be afraid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lois, thank you very much.
LOIS BECKETT Thanks for talking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lois Beckett is a senior reporter for The Guardian. This interview first aired in 2019.
And that's the show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Susanne Gaber with help from Savannah Collins. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.