Gun Control or Guns Rights? Media Reactions and Sandy Hook

The Influence of Audience: Analyzing the Relationship Between post-Sandy Hook newspaper coverage and readers’ positions on gun policy

Reviewed by Aiden Slavin
April 9, 2014

On December 15, 2012 a teenager walked into the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire. This shocking event sparked a debate on gun rights in America, and within months, President Obama had issued 23 executive orders on gun policy and the government had been shocked into debate.

Anna Koelsch attacks this topical and important issue in her examination of the coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings. However, Koelsch does not focus on government response. Rather, Koelsch seeks to elucidate the reactions of a nation through an examination of the press. Koelsch’s methodology is straightforward. She randomly selects 30 newspapers that published 1,017 articles on the topic of Sandy Hook within 90 days of its occurrence. In this way, Koelsch culls the nation’s media outlets in an attempt to determine how the country perceived the events of Sandy Hook and, in turn, what the political response would have looked like if determined solely by the preferences of the American population.

Koelsch’s analysis hinges on a single term distinction. The difference between gun control and gun rights is hugely significant in determining the response of the public. In Koelsch’s words, “‘Gun control’ is the idea that the government should limit gun ownership and accessibility; ‘gun rights’ is the idea that the Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to own and access guns” (4). In order to make her findings applicable to a broader demographic, Koelsch uses audience demand theory, or the idea that media outlets publish what their readers want to see. In this way, examining the content of a newspaper can reveal the preferences of its readership. Koelsch, in turn, extrapolates based on her 30 randomly selected audiences in order to encapsulate the preferences of a nation.

Koelsch’s evidence for this assumption is based largely on the work of a pair of sociologists, Gentzkow and Shapiro. In 2012, these two social scientists determined that the depiction of stories in newspapers was largely determined by the preferences of their readership, as expressed through economic pressures. In other words, Gentzkow and Shapiro discovered that people will pay for the news that agrees with their predetermined points of view. More specifically, Gentzkow and Shapiro found that, in their case study of a rural town, an increase in 10 percentage points of votes to the local Republican candidate increased the circulation of Republican newspapers by approximately 10 percent. These results are profound, and this study provides the central assumption for Koelsch’s paper.

Through the examination of all gun-related articles under consideration, Koelsch concludes that the majority of the articles mention gun control rather than gun rights. And although Koelsch uses the audience demand theory developed by Gentzkow and Shapiro, she is not merely satisfied with assuming its accuracy. Rather, Koelsch rigorously tests their work through a study examining NRA donation data in the localities where each of the 30 selected newspapers operate. Koelsch finds slight correlations that, in turn, lend support to the work of Gentzkow and Shapiro. Coupled with her survey of papers nationwide, these results prompt her to conclude that the American public exhibits a preference for gun control over gun rights.

In other words, according to Koelsch’s findings, the American people were much more in line with harsher gun control than they were with the assertion of their constitutional right to bear arms. However, as Koelsch points out in her ‘Further Research’ section, it is still unclear how much the average American citizen understands about the intricacies of constitutional gun law. As such, though the preference may be for gun control over gun rights, this may be an uninformed and thus ineffective decision.

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