When I was a boy, my father and grandfather took me deer hunting in Wisconsin. They taught me gun safety and we talked about shooting animals for sport and for food. I didn’t kill anything on those hunting trips, but I learned a lot. Guns can be used for good and for evil.
Now, my point. Journalists understand that their words are powerful and can add gasoline to an already fiery debate. I am wondering if using the term “gun violence” in our stories and our graphics is unwittingly showing bias and taking a political stand. As I am writing this, I am watching the sheriff in Florida on TV talking about the need for law enforcement to have more power to investigate threats made by people. He said, “when someone tells a friend that they want to grow up to be a serial killer, we need the power to fully investigate that person”. He was not talking about a gun being the violent threat, he was warning us about people being violent.
Now, before you start accusing me of being sympathetic to the NRA, let’s consider the words we use as journalists and our responsibility to be accurate. That question is the only question I am proposing. We don’t use the term “vehicle violence” when we write stories about car accidents involving speed or impaired driving. We don’t use the term “knife violence” when we write stories about stabbings. So, why do we use “gun violence” when talking about shootings? Talk about this in your newsroom.
I asked my friend and fellow journalist Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute this question and I want to share some of what he said. We need to have this debate to make us better communicators. Tompkins said, “I think gun violence might be different from gun use for something other than violence (hunting, sport) for example.” In other words, use the words that best describe the situation.
Guns are objects. They are not inherently violent. Using the term “gun violence”, I believe, is an editorial decision that needs to be considered carefully. Another example are the terms “pro-life” and “anti-abortion”. Pro-life is a description being promoted by those who are against abortion because it sounds better. Journalists need to use “anti-abortion” because it more accurately describes the movement and not the marketing strategy.
So, next time there is a shooting and you are the journalist assigned to write the story, think about this discussion and the term “gun violence”. Is it the right term to use?