Gun control coverage in the Great Lakes

How did the region's reporters tell the story of Obama's January 16th proposal?

Anna Clark followed campaign coverage in Michigan during the 2012 election for CJR’s Swing States Project. This year, she will cover politics and policy reporting in Michigan as well as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin for CJR’s United States Project, an outgrowth of The Swing States Project. The United States Project aims to be a force for better journalism about politics and policy. Our team of national contributors critiques coverage of federal tax and budget issues, healthcare policy, the quality of political rhetoric, debates on the social safety net, and the role of money in politics, while our network of regional correspondents monitors reporting on both state and federal policy issues at local media outlets around the country.

DETROIT — The day of the Newtown, CT, shooting—at nearly the exact same moment, in fact—a gunman opened fire in Frankstown Township, PA. He killed three, including a woman decorating a church for the holidays, and wounded three police officers before dying in a shootout.

Such tragedy is not, unfortunately, entirely unusual in Great Lakes states. Wisconsin has been the site of six mass shootings since 2004. A 2012 school shooting in Chardon, OH, killed three and wounded two; the suspect’s trial, scheduled for last week, was just postponed.

At the same time, the region boasts a thriving hunting culture. Michigan has the third-most licensed hunters in the nation, adding $1.3 billion to a starved economy. Hunting and fishing pour $2.8 billion into Ohio’s coffers.

All of which means that President Obama’s January 16th gun control proposal was a particularly resonant story for reporters and residents in this region, as is gun policy debate, in general. So, how did Great Lakes reporters cover the president’s proposal—and what might area reporters keep in mind for future coverage of this topic?

They localized it, to varying effect. John Canigula at the Cleveland Plain Dealer combed through Obama’s proposal with a local gun shop owner, weighing the store owner’s yeas and nays. Canigula’s lede brought a compelling visual to the policy debate: “The shelves at Five Star Firearms are nearly bare, a sign of the high demand brought on by political fear.”

WSAU, a Milwaukee radio station, broadcast a segment about Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett saying that the 2012 mass shooting at a suburban Milwaukee spa “might not have happened had President Obama’s new gun measures been in place.” The broadcast nodded to the gun control positions of Milwaukee’s police chief (pro) and sheriff (con), but would’ve been stronger with direct quotes; among the three officials, a total of three words are between quotation marks.

MLive, a Michigan news source, surveyed local leaders on both sides of the debate in a decent overview of the state’s political climate on gun control that ran in six affiliated newspapers, including The Grand Rapids Press and The Flint Journal—albeit, online at least, under a headline with an unfortunately literal metaphor: “Obama gun control proposals draw fire from Michigan firearms groups.” John Barnes, who wrote the article, told me that years of investigations on gun issues, including his reports on concealed weapons and self-defense homicides, translated into “a number of contacts on both sides of the gun issue, who have come to consider our coverage balanced. I have many of their cell phone numbers, and they generally return calls quickly.”

Similarly, they brought their Washington representatives into the drama. In Pennsylvania, Harrisburg’s Patriot-News featured Democratic Sen. Bob Casey as longtime gun advocate calling for stricter controls. As reporter Ivey DeJesus describes it, it’s “an emotional turnabout to voters” by Casey, who has a favorable NRA rating. Casey said the Newtown shooting “deeply affected him.” This is an important story—though DeJesus might’ve mentioned last month’s Pennsylvania shooting alongside Newtown, as it’s certainly crucial local context.

Todd Spangler, the Detroit Free Press’s Washington, DC, correspondent, wrote a great piece prominently featuring the conflicted position of Democratic US Rep. John Dingell, who, as Spangler noted, is a former member of the NRA board of directors and a member of the task force looking into proposals to curb gun violence. While the Freep had “been asking Dingell’s office for weeks where he stands” on gun control proposals, Dingell withheld comment until the day of Obama’s press conference, then saying that he’d “look over the president’s proposals carefully.” In other words, as Spangler explicitly pointed out, Dingell “declined to give [the proposals]… overt support.”

Spangler also talked with US Rep. John Conyers, noting that Conyers “would play a role in getting any gun control legislation passed as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.” (Conyers appears on board.) Altogether, Spangler did an excellent job laying out the basics of Obama’s proposal—both what the president can do on his own and what will “require Congressional action” (more on this point to come)—and localizing the story via Michigan’s influential national leaders, fertilizing the ground for future coverage on an unfolding story.

They simplified it—sometimes blurring facts. For example, per the above-mentioned Plain Dealer piece, the Ohio gun store owner “disagrees with the sentiment that teachers should be given weapons”—which, in context, implied this is part of Obama’s proposal, when of course it is not. The National Rifle Association, which initiated that “sentiment,” was not mentioned in the piece.

Another example: the shorthand in the same Plain Dealer story suggested Obama announced a “plan” to be enforced rather than explaining that Obama announced both executive actions he intends to take on his own (like nominating an ATF director) and recommended legislative actions he will push Congress to take (confirming his nominee for ATF director, for one). While the Plain Dealer offered readers a fuller picture with a pre-press conference overview and a next-day story featuring reactions from local mental health experts, readers may see just one segment of the coverage. Lest readers take away a muddled view, reporters should bring precise language to each piece. (For what it’s worth, the Plain Dealer was hardly alone in failing to make clear that Obama’s proposal included both executive actions and recommendations for legislative action: some national reporters “muff[ed] the terminology” even worse, as Slate’s Dave Wiegel pointed out.)

There will be opportunities for reporters in this region and beyond to do better; the debate over gun policy goes on.

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 and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.