When the News Becomes Propaganda

posted on August 2, 2022
Illustration: Gary Locke

Pop quiz: How many of the violent crimes committed in the United States each year involve a firearm?

It turns out that, thanks to years of media-driven attention-shifting, most Americans don’t know and aren’t close in their estimations. As Dr. John Lott Jr. noted in May, the average self-identified Democrat believes that 57% of violent crimes involve firearms, while the average self-identified Republican believes that 37% do. The real number, per figures from the U.S. Department of Justice, is less than 8%. 

An old adage for the media holds that “if it bleeds, it leads.” In modern America, a more-accurate media maxim might be: “if it involves a gun, it leads.” This, in a snapshot, is why American voters believe 46% of violent crimes involve a firearm—nearly six times the correct number! This is purely a reflection of what we’re incessantly told. 

Per research conducted for Lott by McLaughlin and Associates, voters who have an unrealistic conception of how much violent crime involves guns also believe that “more gun control” is the best way to prevent violent crime. Voters who have a more-realistic conception, by contrast, believe that the best way to fix the issue of violent crime is to lock up the people who commit such crime.

This problem of media hyperfocus affects almost every aspect of our national debates around violence. Because the media has worked so hard to pretend otherwise, most Americans do not know that murders and assaults involving firearms dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2020—even as the number of guns in circulation more than doubled and many states loosened their laws. 

Because the media is obsessed with so-called “assault weapons,” most Americans do not know that rifles of all types are used in fewer murders than are hands and feet, and that the rifles that have been arbitrarily deemed “assault weapons” are used in only a fraction of those crimes. Because the media rushes to talk about “background checks” whenever guns hit the news, most Americans do not know that the United States already has a background-check system in place, or that many mass murderers have passed background checks before they committed their crimes—or that, at times, various parts of our government have failed to add the name of a person to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) who should have been prohibited from buying a gun. 

Since 1999, an average of seven people per year have been killed in mass shootings at schools, making the chance of it happening to a given student or teacher about one in 1.3 million. That, of course, is seven students and teachers per year too many, and we must work hard to reduce it to none. But it is also about half of the number of people who are killed each year inside school-transportation vehicles, a problem about which we hear next to nothing. The first step to addressing any problem responsibly is to put it into the correct context. 

When the question is firearms, the media not only fails to do so, but it also fails to do so on purpose.

This is not only immoral; it is dangerous. There is nothing wrong per se with our talking about a small subset of a tiny portion of the violent crime that is committed in the United States, but when we do so exclusively—and when we pretend that to fix that subset of a tiny portion would be to fix the rest—we guarantee that we will miss the forest for the trees. The root problem is that there are too many violent criminals walking the streets. Take care of that, and we’ve taken care of the lion’s share of the issue, whether the media cares to notice or not. 



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