Media Coverage Often Ignore Guns as the Main Driver of the Recent Rise in Violent Crime
The recent rise in violent crime is a national problem, cutting across demographics, political control, and geographies. It is top of mind for voters and should be a top priority for all elected officials at all levels of government. This national trend is rooted in several causes, many of which will require tailored, local solutions. However, the one common driver largely responsible for the increase in violent crime—in rural and metro areas alike—is guns.
Nationally, 80 percent of homicides were committed with a gun in 2020, and gun homicides rose by 35 percent from 2019 to 2020—the largest annual increase on record. Yet only 3.5 percent of stories from news outlets that mention “homicides” or “murders” in their headlines, subheadings, story descriptions, or other metadata also mentioned the word gun or a synonymous variation over the last year. Metadata—which is written by the news outlets themselves—is what search engines use to find relevant results for searches and, in many cases, are what consumers of social media see in link posts, such as headlines, subheadings, story tags, pictures, and story summaries.
While the media often examines the role guns play in the context of mass shootings, it is clear they rarely focus on and center this information in their coverage about violent crime. To curb this, the public needs to understand the primary reason behind the spike, and policymakers need to strengthen gun laws, which, as evidence shows, reduces violent crime. The media obviously plays an important role in this regard yet, unfortunately—and overall—it has failed to adequately focus on the true driver of rising violent crime—guns—in its coverage.
Take The New York Times, for example: Its most popular story on Facebook regarding the increase of murders this past year—with over 13,000 likes, shares, and comments—did not mention guns or gun violence until the seventh paragraph. Four of the 35 paragraphs in the story mention guns while 11 mentioned COVID-19 or the pandemic. The primary paragraph on gun violence in the story then downplayed its impact by saying, “The data also shows that the gun violence driving much of the surge is concentrated among a relatively small number of people within communities where retaliatory shootings are more common.”
Another New York Times story that covered the increase of homicides and murders looked at alternatives to solely increasing funding to police. Guns are referenced in passing in two of the 23 paragraphs. A series of alternatives were discussed, and reducing access to guns was not seriously examined. Instead, it was mentioned as an aside with other alternatives, including more streetlights and reducing access to alcohol.
Nine popular and more mainstream media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, MSNBC, NBC News, Fox News, and the Daily Wire fared a little better than outlets as a whole: Only 8 percent of these posts including any mention of guns in their metadata. Ideally, this number should be much closer to 80 percent—the percentage of homicides committed with a gun.
Online media writ large and the nine more popular mainstream outlets listed above do a better job highlighting guns in posts that explicitly cover the increase in violent crime or murders in their headlines and metadata, with 18.3 percent and 16.7 percent of those posts, respectively, doing so. However, both are still more than 60 percentage points lower than the 80 percent of homicides that are committed with a gun.
This analysis also looked at cable news coverage, measuring how often guns were mentioned within 15 seconds of either side of the word “homicides.” Specifically, the analysis looked at MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN from May 25, 2021, to May 24, 2022. Taken together, these outlets mentioned guns within 15 seconds of the word “homicides” 28 percent of the time over the last year, a much higher rate than mentions of guns in the metadata of online news during the same time period. There were, however, notable differences between the networks, with CNN making mention of guns close to the use of “homicides” 48 percent of the time; MSNBC 62 percent of the time; and Fox News 15 percent of the time.
Taken together, there is much room for improvement across the board, and newsrooms should not take for granted that their audiences build gun violence into their assumptions about violent crime. It is the largest driver of this recent spike and should be treated as such by pointing to that fact in the most read and watched portions of their stories, such as their headlines and subheadings.
Below is a full summary of CAP’s analysis along with a description of the methodology used:
“Murders” or “homicides” in headlines or metadata
- Popular mainstream online news: Only 8 percent of online stories in popular mainstream outlets (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and the Daily Wire) mentioning “murders” or “homicides” in their headline or metadata include any mention of “guns” or similar variation in their headline or metadata from May 25, 2021 through May 24, 2022.
- All online news: In a broader search of posts from outlets classified as “news” by Newswhip mentioning “murders” or homicides” in their headline or metadata, only 3.5 percent of them included guns in their headline or metadata over the same time period.
- Cable news: Guns were only mentioned within 15 seconds of the mention of “homicides” 29 percent of the time on cable news (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC).
- 48 percent on CNN
- 15 percent on Fox
- 62 percent on MSNBC
“Increase” or some variation in “murders” or “homicides” in posts, headlines, and metadata
- Popular mainstream online news: 16.7 percent of mainstream online posts referring to the increase in murders and homicides in the headline or metadata also mentioned guns in the headline and metadata. Fox News only mentions guns 10 percent of the time in the headlines or metadata.
- All online news: In a broader search of “news” posts mentioning “murders” or homicides” and “increase” or “skyrocket” or “soar” or “increase” in their headline or metadata, only 18.3 percent of them included guns.
- The New York Times: Only 2 of the top 10 online posts from The New York Times with the most Facebook engagements over the last year mention guns in the headline or metadata.
Increase in “violent crime”
- Popular mainstream online news: Only 11 percent of online stories in mainstream outlets mentioning a “rise” or “increase” in “violent crime” in their headline or metadata include any mention of guns let alone their ease of access in this country.
- All online news: When we did a broader search of “news” posts mentioning a “rise” or “increase” in “violent crime” in their headline or metadata, only 14.3 percent of them included guns.
- Cable news: Guns were only mentioned within 15 seconds of the words “violent” and “crime” 16 percent of the time on cable news (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC).
- 17 percent on CNN
- 12.6 percent on Fox
- 24 percent on MSNBC
Using the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer, a tool that tracks screen time of search words, and Newswhip Analytics, a separate tool that tracks social media engagement with news stories, CAP analyzed how frequently key cable news channels and online media included guns in their headlines and metadata of stories covering violent crime, homicides and murders, and the recent increase thereof from May 25, 2021, through May 24, 2022.
For the online news analysis using Newswhip Analytics, we searched for several variations of the word “gun,” including “gun” or “guns” or “firearms” or “firearm” or “rifle” or “handgun” or “AR-15.” To determine the percentage of stories that included one of these words as well as “murders” or “homicides” in their metadata, we simply divided the total number of stories from the above period that included one of the variations listed above for guns and “homicides” or “murders” by the total number of stories with the words including “homicides” or “murders.” A similar method was used to determine the percentages for increases in “murders” or “homicides” and “violent crime” but added a variety of similar search terms for “increase” including “increase, “rise,” “soar,” and “skyrocket.”
For the cable news analysis, we followed the tool’s documentation and used the “&” between search terms “homicides” and “gun” as well as “violent crime” and “gun” that allowed us to see where these terms appeared within 15 seconds of each other in CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC’s transcripts in the covered time period.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
Senior Director of Research, Advocacy