The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media will quickly forget about guns — unless Washington stops them

Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hayes summarizes research showing that in the aftermath of high-profile tragedies, media interest -- and thus public attention -- often fades quickly. If gun control is to be different, politicians will have to give the media a reason to cover it.

Within hours of the murder Friday of 26 schoolchildren, staff and a principal in Newtown, Conn., the political debate had been joined. President Obama, speaking through tears, called for “meaningful action” to prevent future horrors like the one witnessed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Advocates of gun control have demanded new legislation, and now.

The challenges for gun control proponents are formidable. There is the influence of the gun lobby on Capitol Hill. And in particular, a public that in recent years has not only grown less supportive of more gun restrictions, at least in the abstract, but also doesn’t care about the issue. In a post-election Gallup survey, fewer than one-half of one percent of Americans said that guns were the nation’s “most important problem.”

One reason the issue lacks salience is that citizens tend to take their cues from the media. When news outlets devote significant attention to an issue – health care or national security, for example – the public comes to view those problems as pressing. With the deluge of economic news over the last year, it’s no surprise that 64 percent of the Gallup respondents said the economy was the nation’s most important problem.

But as Brad Plumer and Dylan Byers have pointed out, news coverage of gun control is rare and particularly sporadic, even in the aftermath of widely publicized mass shootings. And that makes the prospects for a renewed public debate over gun control dim, although not extinguished entirely.

Consider the graph below. It displays the number of news stories that contained the phrase “gun control” in the weeks surrounding three shootings: the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the January 2011 Arizona attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the July 2012 assault at a theater in Aurora, Colo. The data come from a search of more than 500 news outlets in the “U.S. Newspapers & Wires” index of LexisNexis.

Not surprisingly, each incident resulted in a spike in articles about gun control. For instance, in the week of the Virginia Tech shooting, 945 news stories in the database mentioned the issue. But as time went on, gun control received less and less attention. Within five weeks, coverage was nearly back to where it had been before the shooting. The pattern is similar for the Tucson and Aurora attacks.

This phenomenon – the media’s intense interest in, and subsequent boredom with, a public policy problem – is known as the “issue-attention cycle.” A dramatic event, such as a shooting, brings an issue to the media’s attention, prompts an avalanche of news, and then an inevitable decline in coverage. Coverage of natural disasters is a particularly good example. Unless new events continue to draw journalists’ attention, they move on to other, fresher stories. The public then turns its concerns elsewhere, too.

But might this time be different? Perhaps. After all, the slaughter of innocent schoolchildren has no doubt gripped the media and public in a way that even the attempted murder of a member of Congress didn’t.

In time, however, the images of Sandy Hook will fade. And if gun control remains in the headlines a month from now, it will likely be only because Obama and the Democrats have taken up the political fight.

The media find it difficult to construct a compelling narrative around consensus, so policy issues tend to receive sustained attention only when the parties are engaged in loud, public conflict. That’s a big reason why the “wild political donnybrook” over health care was the top story in the news for much of 2009 and 2010.

A health care-esque debate over gun control is unlikely. But whether and when politicians in Washington take up the issue in a serious way will determine how quickly gun control recedes from the news pages.

And that, ultimately, is what will determine whether Americans’ sadness and anger over the tragedy in Newtown leads to broader public concern with guns.