The media don’t care about gun control anymore

December 13, 2013

 


Media coverage of gun control since Newtown. (Danny Hayes/The Monkey Cage)

In the days after the Newtown, Conn., shootings, President Obama and other political leaders vowed to aggressively pursue new gun control legislation. But in the year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the fight has migrated away from Capitol Hill to the states, where advocates hope their chances for success are better.

Perhaps one reason for the shift is that reformers have struggled to keep the national media’s attention on the gun debate. Despite unprecedented coverage in the days after the shooting, one year later media interest in gun control is right back to where it was before anyone had heard of Adam Lanza.

The chart above shows the number of published news stories that mentioned “gun control” for each week since the Newtown killings. The data come from a search of more than 500 outlets in the U.S. News & Wires database of Lexis-Nexis.

Gun control coverage was profuse in the days and weeks after the shooting. With Democratic political leaders declaring that “we can’t tolerate this anymore” and that “we are not doing enough to protect our citizens,” the debate over guns took center stage. This is a frequent pattern after mass shootings, as the media’s intense interest in such a dramatic event leads to a spike in coverage.

But, as typically happens, the media’s attention eventually waned after the “issue attention cycle.” After several weeks of a deluge of coverage — fueled in part by the president’s issuing of 23 gun-related executive actions — journalists turned to newer stories, including the fiscal cliff and the ongoing budget debates. Gun control returned to the headlines in April, when a Senate bill that would have expanded background checks generated a flurry of coverage. But the story essentially died once the legislation did.

What happened after April illustrates how unlikely it is that the media will sustain interest in an issue if Washington isn’t fighting about it, or if real policy change appears unlikely. Even a national tour in July by Gabrielle Giffords — the former congresswoman whose attempted assassination set off a debate about gun control in early 2011 — to gin up support for reform failed to generate much coverage.

And consider the Navy Yard shootings on Sept. 16, in which a gunman killed 12 people in an attack just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Although 600 gun-control stories appeared in the news that week, that was less than half the number published the week of the Senate vote in April. With few politicians calling for a renewed gun debate, Navy Yard coverage was principally focused on issues of mental health and security at government facilities. Tragedy alone is not enough to spur the media’s attention to gun control — it is only tragedy combined with the prospect of political action.

None of this means that gun-control advocates will have an easier time at the state level. Indeed, many recent efforts have been thwarted, in part because of vigorous lobbying campaigns by gun rights groups. But it may be that media attention will be easier to sustain in states where the prospects for policy action are brighter than in Washington.

At the national level, however, polarization and gridlock on Capitol Hill make meaningful changes to gun laws an unlikely prospect. And after this weekend’s anniversary of Newtown, the media are likely to turn back to the other issues du jour.

Danny Hayes is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. His research focuses on political communication and political behavior. He is the co-author of Influence from Abroad, a book about Americans' views toward U.S. foreign policy.
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