Friday, April 20, 2007

Media spin and self-defense debate.

My university major was journalism. So I am always interested in how the media reports issues. I am aware of the subtle, and not so subtle, biases that creep into stories. Certainly most the students in my journalism courses were socialists of one kind or another. And the same was true of the staff at the university newspaper where I worked.

I doubt they had a change of heart when they moved on to the big leagues. In fact, one reason many of them went into journalism was to use it as a means of advocating for their own beliefs. They certainly didn’t try to hide that motivation at the time though I suspect many today would claim they are totally objective.

And so I want to look at an article in the Christian Science Monitor regarding the debate about allowing competent adults with a permit to carry concealed weapons on a university campus. Now I am not saying I know anything about the politics of the authors. I don’t. Nor am I assuming a bias though it appears to me that there is one. You draw your own conclusion.

The article begins with how the Virginia Tech shooting has reignited the debate about weapons on campus. It notes an “increasing number of states have passed laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons” which is true. This does not, however, necessarily apply to campuses which is not mentioned in the article. Virginia allows concealed carry but Virginia Tech was still a “gun free zone” in principle though obviously not in reality. It was only “gun free” for the law abiding.

The article states that the advocates of concealed carry say such a policy can save lives. I have already demonstrated four very similar cases to the Virginia Tech incident were access to legal firearms did save lives. So that is not in dispute. It has happened.

The article quotes a Virginia politician who wants to change the law in Virginia. And then it says this: “But opponents of guns on campus argue that their presence would dramatically increase violence in a variety of ways – from accidental discharges to fights being settled with bullets instead of fists. On their side are most university presidents and many law-enforcement officials, as well as academic research.”

So only a politician is cited for the one side while the other side includes “most university presidents and many law-enforcement officials, as well as academic research.” Right off the bat the debate is being stacked decidedly in one direction.

I found that last claim interesting, the one about academic research showing that legal guns on campus “dramatically increase violence”. As far as I know very few universities allow adult students to carry weapons on campus., very few indeed. Utah recently allowed this provided the student is 21 years of age or older and holds a permit to do so. That excludes a large percentage of the student body.

The number of universities that allow concealed carry is relatively small. And I’ve heard of no gun incidents where it is allowed. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist just that I’ve never heard of them. So what academic research has been done regarding legal weapons on university campuses? I have written the authors asking for the source of these resources and we shall see what they say. I won’t hold my breath. In the end I suspect no study regarding a university campus will be presented at least none where guns were allowed on campus.

It would seem to me that with almost no campuses allowing legal weapons that it would be difficult to do a genuine academic study on the subject. We have only anecdotal evidence to work with since the study would be too small and limited to be significant. But the anecdotal evidence shows concealed carry does work.

I took this article and color coded the paragraphs. If the paragraph presented the facts of the debate I gave it green for neutral. If it presented the case for concealed carry I colored it blue. If it presented the case against I colored it red.

Now seven of the 20 paragraphs seem mostly descriptive and neutral. Four paragraphs present the arguments in favor of concealed carry. Seven present the arguments against and one is not clearly against the issue but leans that way. So basically the antigun side gets twice the coverage as the concealed carry side. The one that leaned that direction stated that a bill had been introduced to allow concealed carry at Virginia Tech but was defeated, that is neutral. Then it went into saying that ti was opposed by the “state’s universities and the Virginian Association of Chiefs of Police” while listing no one in favor of the bill. That biases the statement in the antigun direction.

Other than given the antigun advocates twice the space there is another way in which bias is shown. It is more subtle but easily done by journalists. In fact one can use this method of biasing and claim you are completely unbiased. It is lining up people with credentials on on side of the debate and people without credentials on the other side. You can give them equal time but by selectively picking your advocates you can make one side look bad.

By biasing the sample so that all the credentialed individuals are on one side of the debate you bias the perception of the reader.

So what did this article do?

On the side of concealed carry the debate is carried by the following people:
Todd Gilbert, Republican member of the General Assembly. Philip Van Cleave, president Virginia Citizens Defense League

No one else is listed at all. Not one academic. Not one law enforcement official. No one.

And here is who is cited as opposing the move:
“university presidents” “law-enforcement officials” “academic research” Jon Vernick “co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research” “American Academy of Sciences” “law-enforcement officials in Virginia” “Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police” “the state’s universities” “Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence” “members of the academic community” “Jim Sollo, vice president of Virginians Against Handgun Violence”

Against all those people are listed only two individuals who are described as “gun advocates”. Does that look like stacking the deck to you? It does to me.

And what arguments did the experts give? In many cases none at all. They are merely listed as opponents as if their authority alone is sufficient to argue the case. Academic research is claimed but none is mentioned by name or quoted.

The executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police is quoted saying: “You can never protect against this kind of incident.” What does that mean? If he means you can never stop it from happening if someone wants to do it he is pretty accurate. If he means you can’t stop it once it has started he is wrong. I have outlined four such cases where mass shootings ended because of an armed victim including one university shooting in Virginia that he has to be aware of.

He also is quoted saying that if a student or professor were armed that day that there could have been “additional persons killed just as a result of poor judgment calls.”

That is outrageous. Consider the reality of the situation. A group of perhaps 10 students are in a room. An armed man pushes his way into the room through the blocked door shooting as he enters. Assume an armed professor. Of course the professor is going to make a mistake and shoot the students and not the armed man in the doorway. The gunman comes in and shoots the professor and the 10 students and leaves. But it could have been worse! How? How could it have been worse? The man shot everyone in the room.

Assume the same logic is used for the police. We can’t have armed police face a gunman they might shoot the wrong people. And, I believe that there have been studies on wrongful shootings which show that civilians using guns in self-defense have a better record in justified shootings than law enforcement officials do. When someone is executing everyone in sight it is damn near impossible to make it worse by shooting back.

The Brady representative is quoted as saying: “I’m not sure any campus would like to advertise, ‘Come to our campus. We have more guns per capita than any other campus.’”

Instead we had a campus that told a lunatic: “Come to our campus. No one will be able to shoot back and those confined to classrooms several floors above ground level will be like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Next we have another quote from another advocate of victim disarmament. He says allowing guns on campus will mean that angry students “will use them. I fear that we will continue to have mass shootings here in the United States.”

Okay, so he doesn’t realize that mass shooting have taken place outside the United States including countries with stricter gun laws. But what about the logic inside that sentence. If we allow people on campus to have guns there will be mass shooting. So we ban them and make schools no gun zones like Virginia Tech and that does what? Doesn’t he realize that his policy was put into effect at Virginia Tech and failed? Honestly, can anyone name a mass shooting like this that hasn’t taken place in a “no gun zone”?

It really has been astonishing to watch the level of debate as reported by the advocates of disarming victims. And I use that term because the only people who are disarmed under such policies are the victims. Criminals are still willing to break the law and use illegal guns.

Disarmament advocates have argued that concealed carry supporters want “everyone” on campus to be armed. I have yet to read a single individual of any prominence (or not) claim they want every student on campus to be armed. No one I know of is saying that. In Utah the law allows students over the age of 21 to carry weapons on campus if they have a regular permit. That excludes most students limiting concealed carry to the more mature students and faculty. That sounds reasonable.

And it should be noted that in this massacre the majority of victims were older students. Only thirteen of the victims were under the age of 21, 12 were older than 21 but under 30 years of age and seven were over 30 years of age. At least three were faculty members. By Utah standards the majority of the victims would have been old enough to carry a concealed weapon.

Hysterical disarmament advocates have claimed that the “gun people” want everyone to carry an Uzi on campus. Actually the prominent left wing site to which I refer called it an “ozzie” which would have been the father in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or perhaps they confused the submachine gun with an old Rock performer. But there is no weapon called an “ozzie” that I know of.

The point has never been to have every single person armed. Even in Kennesaw, Georgia, which passed a law requiring heads of households to own firearms the law has exceptions. When the law went into effect it was estimated that 70% of households had guns, now they estimate 50%. It is not necessary that everyone be armed. And so far, with widespread gun ownership crime remains low and no one has been shot to death.

The deterrent factor exists because the criminal doesn’t know who is or isn’t armed. That uncertainty raises problems for him. It is entirely possible that in a room of 100 people that no one would be carrying. It is also possible that 10 or 20 people might be. Not knowing which is the case deters crimes. Gun free zones remove that uncertainty.

The media is distorting the picture. The pundits they are in political agreement with are presenting gross distortions of their opponents much the way the Christian Right distorts the average gay person into some sort of monster. This is intentional. And the Christian Science Monitor story wasn’t the only one to do so.

Even when Reuters sent out a story about Kennesaw it had to resort to crude characterization. Out of 30,000 residents they spend most their time talking about one man: a racist, bigoted, old moron. They wrote:

Dent "Wildman" Myers, 76, styles himself as a keeper of the flame when it comes to Kennesaw's gun ordinance. His downtown shop contains a cornucopia of artifacts, including old uniforms and dozens of flags of the Confederacy that fought the Union in part in defense of slavery in the Civil War. At the back is a Ku Klux Klan outfit with a noose and a hood. There also are posters praising defenders of the white race, White Power CDs and a sign that reads: "No Dogs Allowed, No Negroes, No Mexicans." Someone had crossed out the first part of the sign and added "Dogs Allowed." Myers said he wanted to protect the values that made the town and the South distinct from other parts of the United States.

There you have it. The typical gun owner as the media sees them. Yet half the homes in Kennesaw have firearms. Two other residents of the town, who are armed, were briefly mentioned. The copy dedicated to them was just a fraction dedicated to the racist with the Klan uniform and the noose.

The reality is that there is a pervasive bias in the tone of stories, how they are reported, who gets quoted, etc. Journalists do make an effort to get the factual elements correct but they do put a spin on what they write. Intelligent people can usually discern the spin if they make the effort. Most people don’t make the effort and when the spin is subtle it is harder to notice it.

I am confident that if someone contacted the journalists who wrote this article they would note that they were unbiased because they quoted “both sides”. That one side got twice the space will not be mentioned by them. And that one side was heavily biased because of who was quoted will also be ignored. They may not even be aware that is a bias and that they are engaging in it. And if they are aware of it they hope you don’t notice. The reality is that the mainstream media is as biased as the morons at Fox News. The difference is in subtlety and finesse alone.

And so it goes.

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