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G&A Perspectives: When is a Shooting a 'National Tragedy'?

On Sept. 16, 2013, a civilian contractor with some history of mental illness used a valid security pass to enter the Washington Navy Yard. Hidden in his backpack was a disassembled shotgun, which he'd purchased in Virginia after passing a federal background check.

You know how this sad story ends: 13 people died, including the shooter, and three were wounded.

The Navy Yard shooting drew tremendous attention from various media outlets, as well as politicians. Calls for gun control were raised in op-ed pieces and by politicians, notably President Barack Obama and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The pro-gun side countered that the incident exposed the futility of gun control, given that the shooter passed a background check and committed this atrocious act within a highly secured "gun free zone."

Flags were still at half-staff when, four days later, a gang-related shooting at a Chicago park interrupted a pickup basketball game. Nobody was killed, but 13 were wounded, including a 3-year-old boy, who was struck in the jaw.

You may not have heard of this incident — regional media covered it, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., cited it in a gun-control push, yet national coverage was limited.

Why, many wondered, did the two incidents receive such an apparent disparity in coverage?

As gun owners, it is important to understand why certain shootings are labeled national tragedies by the media, while other seemingly similar events receive only a passing glance. After all, politicians tend to capitalize on the news cycle to advance all sorts of agendas, including those affecting gun laws.

I sought answers from one of the country's leading experts on media ethics, Prof. Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her analysis provides a common sense explanation of what the media considers newsworthy, as well as a sobering look at today's fragmented information world.

What Determines News Value?

For major media outlets to consider an event — tragic or otherwise — to be nationally significant, it must cross a certain "news value" or "news factor" threshold. While this value is impossible to define quantitatively, Grimes has devised what she describes as a "whimsical attempt" to illustrate the formula, available here.

"The news 'values' or news factors [journalists consider] include rarity, proximity to the news organization's audience, prominence of the people or places involved, controversy, conflict, the number of people affected and how intensely they're affected," Grimes wrote in an email. "Death, for example, is a pretty intense effect."


Navy Yard Shooting vs. Chicago Shooting

When the Navy Yard shooting and Chicago shooting are entered into Grimes' formula, key differences are apparent. In fact, Grimes described the events as "not comparable" at all.

"For example, the Navy Yard's location alone would raise the newsworthiness of the violence there," Grimes explained. "It's a military base, with — supposedly — security checkpoints to protect the people and the place. It's in the national's capital, with an extremely high profile around the world. The shooting occurred at a workplace — where people have an expectation of safety. When that expectation of safety is violated, that makes all of us feel more vulnerable. And it's a rare occurrence €¦ creating a high quotient of newsworthiness. In addition, 12 people died in the Navy Yard shooting. That's a high death toll in a place of prominence and security."

Add it all up and it's clear the media was quite justified in lending the Navy Yard shooting extensive coverage. Few dispute that.

But why didn't the Chicago park shooting receive equal coverage? For starters, nobody died.

"Wounding is quite different from killing," Grimes writes. "It's terrible, yes. But it's not as terrible as killing, is it? And sadly, gang-related violence is less rare than work-place violence. That comparative rarity affects the comparative newsworthiness too."

A politically incorrect question was then posed to Grimes: Is race a factor in how the media defines a national story? For instance, the 3-year-old victim of the Chicago shooting was African-American — what if he'd been white?

"Race, like class and gender, can play a role — often because those factors reflect the interests of the audience of a particular information outlet," Grimes explained.

Therefore, stories involving a minority member of a particular news audience are somewhat less newsworthy. But far more powerful variables affected coverage of the Navy Yard and Chicago shootings. Principally, the Navy Yard shooting was a rare event that occurred at a prominent location and resulted in 13 deaths. The Chicago shooting was an unfortunately common, gang-related event in the city's South Side that killed no one.

So, the national media's differing coverage only made sense. This website has occasionally questioned the integrity of certain journalists; however, bloggers or social media heads using these two shootings to argue journalistic hypocrisy or advance a conspiracy theory would be wise to take a deep breath and focus on another issue. Coverage of the Navy Yard and Chicago shootings differed because the events themselves were very different.

Why Coverage Ties to Politics

This basic understanding of how the media defines a newsworthy story is essential, as political agendas are so often tied to the news cycle. Congress long ago learned the advantage of the "policy window" — a period of time, often following a major news event, in which there is greater likelihood of passing policies or legislative proposals.

Consider any high-profile tragedy: Emotions run high, everyone wants to respond quickly in a manner that will prevent future tragedies, and sometimes in our haste, laws are pushed through during this "policy window" that wouldn't otherwise have passed. Sometimes the new law may have prevented the tragedy, and other times it wouldn't have. The point is, it's human nature to want to feel that we have "done something" following a traumatic event.

You may find it annoying or insensitive when Feinstein proposes gun control in the immediate wake of a shooting. But she's only doing what all savvy politicians do: they take advantage of policy windows. Therefore, when a shooting makes national news, we can almost always expect a push for gun control.

Defining "The Media"

The issue of defining a national news story is further clouded by the various types of modern media, from television and radio to newspapers, magazines and bloggers — none of which are immune to outlets lacking a commitment to impartial, accurate journalism. Grimes was quick to point out that I used "the media" as a sweeping term during our discussion, when in fact there is great variation.

"There are huge differences among the different organizations and people in 'the media," Grimes says. "A cable TV talk show with an ideological bent or with an entertainment focus will often define 'national tragedy' much differently than, say, The New York Times or CNN's real news shows. The cable TV talk show is catering to a particular audience for which a certain kind of 'tragedy' will have appeal or interest."

This explains why certain outlets will occasionally cover a topic with great vigor while others pass. Why, then, do events like the Navy Yard shooting receive such universal, seemingly non stop media interest?

"News organizations share the 'news values' or 'news factors,' so many would cover the same events simply because of those professional judgments," Grimes said. "But competition and audience interest can also pressure even professional news organizations to go wall-to-wall or give much more coverage than events would ordinarily warrant. If, for example, a talk show gins up its activist audience about a topic, those audience members often begin to pressure other information outlets — and then the coverage snowballs."

One would think that a greater diversity of news outlets would equate to more stories and better opportunities for in-depth reporting. But, Grimes said, the interaction between new and old media isn't always healthy. As media outlets fight for a share of the audience, they can do so at the expense of good journalism.

"I blame much of the over-coverage for some events — like Natalee Holloway's disappearance — on the fragmentation of the audience across so many outlets," Grimes said. "TV, especially, is trying to reassemble a 'mass' audience with emotional, hypnotic, repetitive coverage. I think that's a serious failure of our fragmented information world."

What does Grimes say we can do to prevent such sensationalized journalism?

"If the audience didn't tune in, such things would be less likely to happen."

So there we have it. As consumers of media, we need to realize when our attention is targeted and be ready to investigate 'national tragedies' beyond the stories we're spoon-fed from the mass media.

Joe Biden's Baffling Home Defense Advice

In one of the more mind-boggling statements of 2013 — so far, at least — Vice President Joe Biden offered his sage home-defense tactics during on online interview. In situations where his wife feels threatened at their home, Biden said, his advice is to "walk out on the balcony here, walk out and put that double-barreled shotgun, and fire two blasts outside the house." Of course, anyone with half a brain knows firing a weapon into the air is not only unsafe, but illegal, so it's puzzling why the Veep would encourage citizens to commit crimes in the name of self-defense.

Biden didn't stop there, saying in another interview if you want to keep someone away from your home, "Just fire a shotgun through the door."

Wisconsin Marine Stops Assault with Concealed Firearm

Marine Corps veteran Charlie Blackmore was driving home from work at about 4 a.m. one March morning when he noticed a large man kicking something on the sidewalk. Turns out, the man was brutally attacking his ex-girlfriend, and Blackmore — a CCW holder — was quick to respond. He pulled up and told the man to stop, but when the man continued, Blackmore pulled his handgun and told the man to get on the ground, then held the suspect at gunpoint until the police arrived. Semper fi, Marine.

Elderly CPL Holders Thwart Armed Robberies in Detroit

On Feb. 1, a 70-year-old girls basketball coach at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit was walking two of his students to their cars when they were approached by two males — one a student at the school, another recently expelled. When the pair tried to rob the coach and pulled a gun, the coach — a Michigan concealed pistol license holder and reserve police officer — pulled his concealed handgun and opened fire on the would-be robbers, killing one and wounding the other.

That same day, an elderly gentleman on Grand River Avenue in Detroit was held up by another robber who had picked a bad target; the older gentleman, also a CPL holder, drew his pistol and shot the criminal. Both incidents are a perfect example of the reason behind and effectiveness of concealed carry.

Naked Utah Homeowner Holds Burglar at Gunpoint

In March, St. George, Utah, homeowner Eric Martin was awoken by noises inside his home. After grabbing his handgun, Martin found an intruder, Clinton Keller, who then fled outside, tripping over some of the items he'd already removed from the home. Martin kept his 9mm trained on Keller until the police arrived.

And oh yeah, Martin was completely naked throughout the entire ordeal — even when the police arrived on the scene. 'Imagine five police cars and seven officers rolling up to a scene with a naked man holding a weapon pointing at someone, and holding him down on the ground, ' Martin said. 'The police got a kick out of that. '

72-Year-Old Woman Shoots at Intruder

When 72-year-old Jan Cooper noticed 31-year-old Brandon Alexander Perez trying to force his way into her home, she grabbed her Smith & Wesson .357 and fired a shot — missing him, but scaring him senseless. Perez, already on parole for burglary, was apprehended by Orange County deputies. After being put away, Cooper sent a message to Perez: "Well Mr. Perez, you have no idea how lucky you were to be able to walk away from my house."

Police Chief: Guns Are Not Defensive Weapons

It's"" target="_blank">Emeryville (Calif.) Police Chief Ken James took the microphone during a February press conference and used the opportunity to condemn civilian use of firearms.

"One issue that always boggles my mind is the idea that guns are a defensive weapon. That is a myth. A gun is not a defensive weapon," James said. "A gun is an offensive weapon, used to intimidate, and used to show power. Police officers do not carry a gun as a defensive weapon to defend themselves or their other officers, they carry a gun to be able to do their job in a safe and effective manner and face any opposition that we may come upon. If it was a defensive measure, why did we lose 55 officers last year to gun violence?"

87-Year-Old Shoots Man Attacking Pregnant Woman

In February, a 24-year-old pregnant woman was doing laundry at her apartment building with her 3-year-old daughter, when 49-year-old Larrell Stell began harassing her and making sexual advances toward her. When she refused, Stell pushed her, so she grabbed her daughter and ran to the landlord's apartment. Stell caught up with her there and began punching her repeatedly, so the 87-year-old landlord got his handgun and shot Stell. When Stell tried to attack the landlord, the landlord shot him again.

"From the information that we've been given, we think it sounds fortunate that the landlord was armed in this case," said Lt. Britt Snyder of the Chaves County (N.M.) Sheriff's Department. "He certainly would have been no match for a man that's 40 years younger than him."

New York Student Uses AR-15 to Stop Home Invasion

In March, Chris Boise, a college student in Rochester, N.Y., came face-to-face with two home intruders in his apartment, one of the men pointing a gun in Boise's face. Boise's roommate, Raymond, heard the commotion and grabbed his AR-15, which scared the intruders away on sight.

Plenty of folks may want to ban the AR platform, but this story proves these rifles have a place in today's society.

Liquor Store Owner Pulls Gun on Armed Robbers

Having been pistol-whipped and tied up by robbers back in 2011, 69-year-old Arturo Taveras was no stranger to armed criminals with evil intentions. So when an armed robber entered his store on June 2, Taveras wasn't about to give in. Instead, Taveras pulled his own pistol on the robber, scaring him away before a single shot could be fired. When push came to shove, Taveras showed he was willing and able to end the threat himself; sometimes that's all you need.

W.V. County Tries to Prosecute Teen Over NRA Shirt

Jared Marcum, a 14-year-old West Virginia student, caused quite a stir after he refused to take off his NRA T-shirt at school. After being verbally reprimanded by a teacher, then suspended, and finally arrested for charges of obstruction by his school's safety officer, Marcum was faced with jail time over a T-shirt emblazoned with an AR-15 and the phrase, "Protect Your Right." County officials began treating local media with hostility and refused to answer reporters' questions, making an already ridiculous story even goofier. Charges were eventually dropped against Marcum, putting an end to one of the more bizarre stories of 2013.

Kidnappers Force Couple to Rob Bank, Shot by Husband

After 20-year-old Jordan Kutach and 21-year-old Preston Kutach kidnapped a couple, forced the wife to steal an undisclosed amount of cash from the bank where she worked, and forced the husband to drive them down the highway, they were dealt a little Texas justice by the perturbed husband. A reserve officer with the sheriff's department, the husband drew a firearm he had concealed in his vehicle and shot both suspects, killing Preston Kutach and critically wounding Jordan Kutach. Authorities did not release the husband's name, but it's believed he will not face charges.

Iowa Hostage Kills Escaped Fugitive

Having recently escaped from prison, 38-year-old Rodney Long led authorities on a four-day manhunt, shooting and wounding a deputy in the process and wrecking a stolen truck. Entering the home of 71-year-old Jerome Mauderly, however. After he and his wife, Carolyn, were held hostage for four hours, Mr. Mauderly finally decided enough was enough, grabbed his shotgun and confronted Long, firing one shot and ending the threat once and for all.

Pizza Restaurant Owner Thwarts Armed Robbery

On Aug. 16, two masked men entered Steve Sahin's New Haven, Conn., restaurant, Pizza Heaven II, shortly before midnight, brandishing a rifle and demanding Sahin empty his cash register and his pockets. However, the robbers got greedy and demanded Sahin take them to his office in the back to grab more cash. The robbers were shocked to see a pistol in Sahin's drawer, which he pulled on the robbers. Surprised, the wannabe rifleman stumbled and dropped his weapon — which turned out to be a mere pellet rifle.

Liquor Store Clerk Pulls Gun on Robber

Hollywood actors can't hold a candle to 54-year-old Jon Lewis Alexander. Now a liquor store clerk, Alexander is a 30-year veteran who has done four tours in Iraq, has extradited federal prisoners, and has worked as both a prison guard and a private investigator. Needless to say, this guy is tough, and he has little patience for petty thugs. One would-be robber in Marionville, Mo., found that out the hard way earlier this week when he tried to hold up Alexander, only for the clerk to stick the business end of his own pistol in the criminal's face.

French Jeweler Shoots Robber, Charged with Murder

Stephan Turk, a 67-year-old jeweler from the town of Nice on the French Riviera, shot and killed an armed robber, 19-year-old Anthony Asli, who tried to flee after holding the jeweler at gunpoint around 9 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11. However, the shooting has prompted many to question whether the shooting was justified, as Asli had already fled the store. What do you think?

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