Misleading coverage of a major gun study highlights the danger of fast reporting

Photo: AP

At a time of high-profile shootings and rising crime in many cities, the journal Preventive Magazine has published a special issue on gun violence, bringing together leading scholars to illuminate a subject that is often overwhelmed by political rancor. Guest editors David Hemenway and Daniel Webster apply a public health perspective to a field in which policy decisions have life-and-death stakes. 

Yet, in at least one case, an attempt to dislodge a myth had a curious boomerang effect: The media reverb interpreted the study’s conclusions to mean the opposite of what researchers intended.

In the fall of 2013, researchers from Duke University and the University of Chicago asked people with a history of gun offenses at Chicago’s Cook County jail about how they got a weapon. By analyzing their responses, the researchers hoped to find ways to limit the ability of dangerous offenders to access firearms. Most of them, it turns out, got their guns not by stealing them or by buying them from authorized dealers, but via their social networks: family, friends, and gangs. They avoided obtaining guns from people they didn’t know out of concern that the person could be an undercover officer or an informant, or that the gun could have been used in a previous crime they could be implicated in if they are found with the weapon. As one respondent to the study said: “As far as Chicago, it’s so close to Indiana … there’s gun laws, but it’s easier to get access to guns in Indiana, so most people either go to the down-South states or go to Indiana to get guns, or people obtain gun licenses, go to the store and then resell.”

A key takeaway, then, is that policing and regulations impact how the underground gun market functions. With more enforcement and the targeting of key intermediaries, researchers say, gun access to dangerous people can be even more constrained. In other words, regulations may not yet put a complete stop to illegal trade, but they do make it more difficult for guns to get in the wrong hands. But much of the media pick-up boiled the study down to the notion that universal background checks on gun purchasers don’t work—a conclusion two researchers from the study emphatically deny.

For example, the Las Vegas Review-Journal cited the study to support the editorial board’s claim that background checks are “not a cure-all.” (Media Matters for America pointed out that this stance contradicts the edit board’s earlier position.) David French at the National Review  used the study to argue that gun regulations only “make it harder for ordinary, law-abiding people to buy guns.” The National Rifle Association acknowledged the researchers didn’t conclude that background checks don’t work—but suggested the researchers were blind to where their own evidence pointed them. Even the “Mallard Fillmore” comic strip weighed in, sarcastically inveighing that “more gun laws are the answer!”

This puts the researchers in a tough position. Philip J. Cook, the Duke professor who is the lead name on the gun study, has worked in this field for 40 years. He’s had his share of interactions with the NRA over those four decades. But, he says, it’s different this time. Rather than seeing the media that supports gun rights attack his study or his own expertise, it is actually running with his study—and using it as evidence to support their opposing view.

“I would be glad to have a forum to rebut the scurrilous lies being told about (this study),” Cook says. “But how do you rebut a comic strip?” 

After the Las Vegas editorial was published, the researchers did ask the paper for an opportunity to put forward their take in an op-ed. They were denied that, but the paper published their letter to the editor. CJR reached out to the Las Vegas edit board, as well as French at the National Review, but has not yet received a response. 

“Most stories that came out about our study were put out by people who did not call us,” says Harold Pollack, another member of the research team. He’s a Chicago professor and co-director of the university’s Crime Lab. The coverage “seemed to just grab a soundbite … that we don’t feel accurately reflects what we found. Especially for an issue this sensitive, it adds to the general cacophony” and misses the opportunity for a “sophisticated understanding of what’s going on.”

Aside from basic errors about the study, the media coverage that misinterpreted it typically framed the matter as a Second Amendment issue. But as Pollack put it, the constitutional right to gun ownership is so broad, it leaves room for a great deal of choices about how, when, and where guns should be made available. Sweeping the nuts-and-bolts of the issue under such a wide umbrella elides detail and nuance. 

“When every study becomes ammunition for a prior advocacy belief, we lose that ability to have a public conversation,” Pollack says. 

So, for journalists covering research studies, standard best practices bear repeating. Read the actual study, not summaries that appear elsewhere. Reach out to the researchers, even (or especially) if you disagree with their methods or conclusions. Academics, after all, are increasingly encouraged to “in some way engage the conversation” about their peer-reviewed published work, according to Pollack. 

And, especially, be attentive to the sample at the heart of a study. The slippery coverage of this gun study suggested that background checks don’t work because violent people will find a way, no matter what, to obtain a gun illegally. But that’s a dangerously tautological interpretation—the study’s entire sample size included people with a history of gun charges. It did not, by it’s nature, include people who wanted to obtain a gun and couldn’t. As tempting as it can be to draw a broad conclusion from a research study, if the sample size doesn’t fit the story, the result will only be so much noise.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.