MEDIA ROUNDUP: Guns: Gun industry looks to hit mark with general media

While the media covers gun-related issues, its attention span is often small. Having identified lack of knowledge as a main reason, David Ward finds the industry is now more willing to educate reporters.

While the media covers gun-related issues, its attention span is often small. Having identified lack of knowledge as a main reason, David Ward finds the industry is now more willing to educate reporters.

The coverage of the Washington, DC sniper has reached the end of a news cycle that is very familiar to both sides of the gun debate. A flurry of stories about the actual event was followed by another spate of articles on the easy availability of guns - even for someone legally prevented from owing one - as well as a debate on the pros and cons of ballistic fingerprinting. But eventually the media's attention was captured by another story (the mid-term elections). As a result, nothing has changed and nothing was resolved in the national debate over the right to bear firearms. For nearly four decades, from the assassinations of the Kennedys, John and Robert, and Martin Luther King in the 1960s to Columbine and other school shootings in recent years, the general-interest press has tended to cover guns primarily as a follow-up to breaking news stories. "It's not so much events-based as it is tragedy-based," notes Megan McQueen, SAE with Imagio/JWT, which handles communications for Washington Ceasefire, a Pacific Northwest-based gun violence prevention group that gained a great deal of attention when it's founder Tom Wales was shot to death in his Seattle home last year. McQueen insists she doesn't try to capitalize on crimes such as Columbine or the DC-area sniper, but adds, "At the same time, there's a window of opportunity to get information out into the public. We try to get some statistics out there, and point out that while this was certainly a tragedy, tragedies occur all the time involving people with guns." The media should be in the middle of one of the great ongoing public-policy debates in this US. However, advocates from both sides suggest that reporters too often cover gun stories with little background knowledge of the firearms industry, or the issues surrounding it. Ken Jorgensen, director of marketing and communications for handgun maker Smith & Wesson, says, "Ten years ago, the whole industry was very reluctant to deal with the general media because they felt they didn't get a fair shake," he says, conceding that ironically one of the reasons the industry did not get a fair hearing was "the fact that nobody would talk to the media." Educating the media Since then, Jorgensen has not only made Smith & Wesson more accessible, but has also worked with groups like The Shooting Sports Foundation to educate journalists about the firearms industry. "In many cases, we found the general-interest news media just has no concept of the product they're trying to talk about," he says. "They don't know a revolver from a pistol, they don't know an automatic from a semi-automatic. So we wanted to make them knowledgeable and more factually accurate, so they would no longer talk about semi-automatic revolvers, which don't exist." The trouble is, the guns beat is not a traditional one. Matt Bennett, communications director for the advocacy group Americans for Gun Safety, says, "Usually it is a sub-beat of the Justice Department beat, which is how many papers cover this." There are a few reporters who have taken the time to become well-versed on the issues, including Fox Butterfield of The New York Times, Larry Abramson at National Public Radio, Toni Locy at USA Today, and legal affairs reporter Paul Barrett at The Wall Street Journal. But Amy Stilwell, communications director with The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says, "So many times you're getting people who are asked to cover a story with a gun angle, but they don't really know the issue. What I've seen is a lack of critical thinking and research on the gun issue." Perhaps the media is growing a bit weary of reporting a story that generates a lot of commentary, but little in the way of real legislative change toward one side or the other. But Bennett says that's not really the case, adding the media will cover the issue if there's a new and newsworthy angle. "You can get media interest if you put out new information, and if you have data and something compelling to say, particularly if it's broken down by state." Even then, Stilwell says, it can be an uphill fight. "We try to do media outreach," she says. "But it has been hard to break through for the past year or so. There hasn't been much of an appetite, with the exception of tragedies." Receptive targets One area where guns get a lot of coverage is in the shooting sports and hunting press. But these stories are often based on products rather than issues. Gary Giudice of Blue Heron Communications has targeted the outdoor enthusiast press for several firearm and firearm-accessory clients for the past 15 years. He says that while coverage in the general interest press may shift with political and legislative winds, his target audience hasn't changed much at all. "The enthusiast press are very curious about new products," he says. Hunting and shooting PR pros do use traditional press releases, but a lot of their work is done face to face with journalists at trade shows or company-sponsored hunting trips. "It helps to get the firearm in the writers' hands," Giudice says. "We spend much time with newspaper reporters, who maybe don't get a chance to shoot much, showing them hands-on how to become better shots." But Bruce Bear, founder of Bear Advertising & Public Relations, points out that these magazines are not only driven by product reviews. "If the average hunter pulls a magazine off the rack, they'll see coverage on Second-Amendment issues, conservation news, issues relating to game regulations... as well as gun safety, always a major concern." In recent years, there have been a host of new outdoor and enthusiast magazines, but Giudice says most of his firearm focus is on the tried-and-true sportsman journals like Field & Stream. "Outdoor is a very important magazine, as is Men's Journal, but they are not what we characterize as consumptive magazines," he says. "Things aren't killed on the pages of Men's Journal." It's not just the newer outdoor-themed publications that shy away from gun stories. Smith & Wesson's Jorgensen says the reluctance to cover guns extends to more traditional men's and women's lifestyle outlets. "They haven't been a primary objective of ours, probably because we've been turned down so many times," he says. "Occasionally, you'll get an exception to that, but the thing they overlook sometimes is that... a lot of their readers are gun owners." While no PR pros would agree with the suggestion that the general-interest media shies away from gun stories out of fear of tackling a controversial issue, there is a perception that the media may be underestimating the public's desire for an national ongoing debate on balancing Second Amendment rights with the need to reduce the US' alarming rate of gun-related injuries and deaths. Proof of the public's interest can be seen on the "letters to the editor" page in most major papers. Gun-related stories often trigger a flood of letters, mostly from gun owners who are part of a huge grassroots organization affiliated with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and/or other pro-gun groups. Stilwell, whose group recently joined forces with the Million Mom March, says groups calling for more responsible gun ownership are attempting to emulate this strategy going forward. "One of our long-term investments over the next few years is to build a grassroots army that can be out there matching the NRA letter for letter." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal; USA Today Magazines Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; Soldier of Fortune; Small Arms Review; Guns; Handgunner; GunWorld; Guns & Ammo; Rifle; Concealed Carry Handguns; Gun Week; Combat Handguns; Gun & Weapons; Shotgun News; SWAT; America's First Freedom; Combat & Survival; Field & Stream; North American Hunter; Sports Afield; Shooting Sports Business TV & Radio American Sportsman; The Outdoor Life Network; Duck Unlimited TV; NPR; Outdoor Life Radio Internet www.gunsmagazine.com; www.gunsandammomag.com; www.nra.org; www.hsshf.org

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