A new report from USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center makes the case that the depiction of gun violence in the media is fueling gun violence in real life, while the “on-screen representation of characters using guns desensitizes children to the consequences of guns but increases their interest in them.”
“I couldn’t be prouder that the Center which bears my name is releasing this report about gun safety and the entertainment industry,” Lear said in a statement. “How guns are portrayed on screen should reflect the public health crisis we are in and help portray responsible gun ownership.”
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Issued on the eve of the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were murdered by an assault rifle-wielding 18-year-old, the report says “America has more guns than people; more homicides, suicides, and unintentional deaths by firearm than any of its high-income peer countries by orders of magnitude. The number one cause of death for children and teens in America is gun violence. So it makes sense that guns seem to be everywhere in our media, too. From late night news to Saturday morning cartoons, cop shows to comedies – guns are ubiquitous on our screens.”
According to the report titled “Trigger Warning: Gun Guidelines for the Media,” 4,300 children died from firearms in 2020 alone, while “85% of children under 13 who are victims of gun homicide die in their home. An estimated 30 million children in the U.S. live in households with firearms, and 4.6 million live in a home with at least one loaded and unlocked gun. More than 349,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine,” where 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, were murdered in 1999. Read the full report here.
A study from 1992 found that the typical American child saw 40,000 simulated murders by age 18. And today, with the advent of cable, streaming, YouTube and other social media platforms, the new Lear Center report says that “it’s likely that number has increased.”
The report, however, notes that film and television creators “have the power to shape public perception, normalize habits, and even effect policy, which is why the way we talk about and depict guns and gun violence matters so much.”
Addressing the filmmaking community, it says: “As a storyteller, you are in a unique position to change the narrative, reset the bar, and provide representation of safe, acceptable behavior when it comes to firearms. Your voice and talents are needed now more than ever. Your stories matter.”
Said Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center: “The Lear Center’s message to the creative community in this report comes down to this: Treat guns in your stories as if they were real. Because your audience does.”
Kate Folb, director of the Lear Center’s Hollywood, Health & Society, which co-authored the report, said: “From ‘designated driver’ to ‘buckle up,’ we all know how Hollywood helped make our roads safer by depicting responsible driving. Could there be a better moment than this one for the entertainment industry to get behind a similar effort for gun safety, and depict responsible gun ownership? TV shows are in a unique position to change the narrative, reset the bar, and provide representation of safe, responsible behavior when it comes to firearms.”
The report offers numerous guidelines for media depictions of gun violence and ways to promote gun safety while debunking common myths about gun ownership. “American citizens own four times the amount of guns as the next highly developed country and suffer four times the amount of gun homicides,” the report says. “If guns made us safer, America would be the safest country in the world.”
Said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: “Hollywood leaders want to use their talents and voices to inspire positive culture change. Outraged by the tragedy in Uvalde, this time last year about 300 leading writers, directors, and producers signed Brady’s open letter committing to modeling gun safety on screen. Now, they have a roadmap to turn that commitment into tangible change. We’ve heard many creatives share examples of meaningful changes they’ve made since signing the pledge, so I am excited for the life-saving impact that will come now that the community has this important tool.”
Among the report’s many recommendations to the creative community are these with respect to portrayals of guns and police:
- Avoid portraying law enforcement use-of-force as heroic. Consider showing law enforcement characters facing consequences, or at least scrutiny for such actions, which are rarely depicted.
- Humanize and diversify depictions of those affected by gun violence. Nuanced depictions of shooting victims can make audiences care about gun violence as a public issue.
- Appeal to common values. Heavy-handed stories can be alienating to gun owners who feel their freedoms are being threatened, or their beliefs mocked. Instead of making gun owners the antagonist, appeal to the common values shared.
With respect to children and guns, the report says: “Children are mimics. With millions of children living in homes with loaded and unlocked guns, representation of guns in children’s programming is dangerous. Making the gun unique colors, strangely shaped, or futuristic is likely not enough. Remember that children don’t need a toy car to look like a car to know it’s a car. Consider any and all alternatives to actual firearms.”
The report also found that active shooter drills at schools may do more harm than good. “There is little evidence to suggest these training methods are effective at preventing mass shootings or minimizing their impact. Instead, these drills are shown to cause depression, stress, and anxiety in children.”
Solutions offered include:
- Guns in the home, not school, pose the biggest threat to children. Our focus on school shootings risks distracting us from the real threat at home.
- Healthy ways to prepare for school shootings: Tabletop exercises, which involve bringing together groups of students and teachers to talk through a hypothetical active shooter situation step-by-step without engaging in a simulation, have proven to be less traumatizing and equally effective. Schools should be required to get parental consent before any type of shooter drill.
- Schools must screen students for trauma after drills and provide counseling.
The report also noted that a recent study of women gun-owners in California by Everytown for Gun Safety found that “women who purchased a gun died by firearm homicide at twice the rate of women who did not. There is no research to support the idea that women’s gun ownership increases their safety, regardless of whether they are intimate partner victims. In fact, studies show the opposite – that women living in households with a firearm are at greater risk of homicide.”
The report found that “media and storylines that advocate for women to be armed with guns is particularly dangerous since the empirical truth is this: access to a firearm is directly associated with an increased risk of intimate partner homicide.”
And with regards to TV news coverage of mass shootings, the report recommends:
- Minimizing naming and describing the individuals involved in mass shootings.
- Limiting sensationalism.
- Refusing to broadcast shooter statements or videos.
- Present the shooter’s actions (preparation, planning, shooting) as cowardly and shameful, since associating observed behavior with punishment has been shown to decrease the likelihood of imitation.
- Avoid in-depth descriptions of the shooter’s rationale for engaging in the behavior. For example, stating that a shooter took revenge after years of bullying may portray a mass shooting as one possible response option for individuals experiencing bullying and with similar backgrounds as the shooter.
- Reduce overall duration of news coverage.An increase in imitation suicides has been linked to increased media coverage of a suicide event. The same may be true for imitation mass shootings.
- Limit the use of live press events immediately following a mass shooting. This would minimize the perceived reward and help decrease overall interest, by not adding ‘excitement’ to the event.
- Avoid sensationalism. Present only the facts and aim to do so in a dull manner. Frantic, breathless energy around the coverage of a mass shooting might look like a reward to a would-be imitator.
- Avoid providing detailed accounts of the actions of a mass shooter before, during, or after the event. The less the behavior is described, the less likely it is to be imitated.
With respect to suicides by firearms, the report notes that “suicide is contagious,” and that “over 100 studies worldwide have found that risk of contagion is real and responsible reporting can reduce the risk of additional suicides.” Its recommendations on news coverage of suicides include:
- Report suicide as a public health issue. Including stories on hope, healing, and recovery may reduce the risk of contagion.
- Include resources. Provide information on warning signs of suicide risk as well as hotline and treatment resources.
- Use appropriate language. Certain phrases and words can further stigmatize suicide, spread myths, and undermine suicide prevention objectives such as ‘committed suicide’ or referring to suicide as ‘successful,’ ‘unsuccessful’ or a ‘failed attempt.’ Instead use ‘died by suicide’ or ‘killed him/herself.’
- Emphasize help and hope. Stories of recovery through help-seeking and positive coping skills are powerful, especially when they come from people who have experienced suicide risk.”
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