The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this gun control debate has been different

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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 looks at why gun control isn't fading from the headlines. For past posts in the series, head here.

That the gun control debate hasn’t faded from public view owes much to the media. Over the last month and a half, news organizations have covered the shooting in Newtown, Conn., in a fundamentally different way than they have others. And that’s because President Obama and other Democrats have given journalists a story they can’t resist.

The graph below compares news coverage since Newtown to coverage following three other recent mass shootings -- at Virginia Tech University in 2007, at a 2011 event hosted by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., and at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater last year. The figure plots the number of news stories including the phrase “gun control” based on a search of more than 500 news outlets in the “U.S. Newspapers & Wires” index of LexisNexis.

As I wrote in the days after Sandy Hook, coverage of gun control typically spikes following a mass shooting. But it pretty quickly recedes. This owes to a phenomenon called the “issue attention cycle,” in which the media become intensely interested in an issue for a brief time before moving on to something else.

But the graph highlights several distinct features of Newtown. During the week of the shooting (the day of, and the six days after), the number of stories mentioning gun control was two to four times what it had been following other attacks. With 20 very young children dead, it’s hard to imagine that the response could have been otherwise.

But even the murders of first-graders couldn’t compete with the issue attention cycle -- at least initially. Just two weeks after the shooting, gun control looked like it was headed to the dustbin of history again. In particular, the fiscal-cliff debate (and the attendant congressional f-bombs) sucked almost out of the oxygen out of the Washington media air. In the week surrounding the New Year, “fiscal cliff” appeared in the news four times as often as “gun control.”

But coverage shortly moved on to a third phase. Whereas gun control had evaporated from the news within about a month of the earlier shootings, in the case of Newtown, it surged back in mid-January.

The initial uptick -- in the “three weeks after” period -- took place after Vice President Biden announced on Jan. 9 that President Obama “is going to act.” The surge continued the following week, on Jan. 16, when Obama announced and signed 23 executive actions to put reforms in place. According to LexisNexis data compiled by George Washington University undergraduate Sean O’Connell, the president’s announcement generated more than 800 gun-control stories in one day, more than any single-day total since the Newtown shooting.

Newtown also stands out for the extent to which gun control has been central to the media narrative about the shooting. The graph below charts the percentage of stories in the LexisNexis database that mentioned the shooting, and that also included the phrase “gun control.” This is one way to measure how much attention gun control received compared to other story lines, whether mental health, features about the victims, the emotional toll on the local community and so forth.

Even before the 27 victims had been laid to rest, gun control was a far more prominent part of the Newtown narrative than it had been in previous incidents. And in contrast to the Virginia Tech, Aurora and Giffords shootings, it has come to dominate the media narrative. The week that Obama issued the executive actions, more than 60 percent of stories that mentioned Newtown also included a reference to gun control.

None of these data are particularly surprising to anyone who has paid more than fleeting attention to the news of late. On Friday, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about White House plans to use the bully pulpit to pressure members of Congress to support gun control legislation, just as Democrats were introducing an assault weapons ban bill in the Senate.

But the dynamic tells us a lot about how issues rise and fall in the public consciousness. For the most part, gun control or any other policy issue doesn’t get a hearing simply because the media decide to keep it on the agenda. News coverage can certainly shape how and when politicians respond to issues; they ignore at their peril national problems that receive a lot of media and public attention.

But the media tend to be reactive, “indexing” their coverage according to the political debate happening within Washington. The surest way for an issue to stay in the news is for politicians to fight about it.  (It doesn’t hurt when the president mentions it in an inaugural address.) When political elites publicly push for legislation, as the Democrats are doing now, journalists take notice. But if policymakers stop publicly arguing over gun control -- either because legislation appears moribund or because debates over fiscal and spending issues crowd it out -- the news media are likely to stop caring about it, too.