‘Many’ problems in this CNN gun-control story

In my journalism-education day job, I grade lots and lots of papers — including many news stories written by student journalists. It’s hard work and somebody needs to do it, because it’s important for journalists to learn the basics in terms of grammar and Associated Press style so that they can move on to writing more complex stories in a manner that is as accurate and balanced as possible.

One of the old-school rules stressed here at the Washington Journalism Center is that saying that “God is in the details.” Of course, the devil is in the details, too, but that almost goes without saying.

The point is that journalists are supposed to give readers as much specific information as possible through careful reporting and the use of clear attributions. Name your sources. Quote the specifics, whenever possible. Try to avoid vague labels. After all, with a few attributed facts, readers can be given information with which to make their own judgments.

Thus, one of the words I circle most often with my purple pen — red is too old-fashioned, for some contemporary students — is the word “many.”

You know, “many” — as in “many people are allegedly doing what my story claims they are doing, but I don’t have any specific information to give you to demonstrate that fact, so I’ll just say ‘many’ and move on.”

Here is a perfect example, drawn from CNN:

Washington (CNN) -– There is a split in American pews over gun control. In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, many Christians are wrestling with gun control, an issue they once held as a sacred, untouchable right.

For years gun control was championed by Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, but now many evangelicals are joining the growing choir of Americans asking what can be done.

“Maybe the most interesting meeting we had was with the interfaith group,” Vice President Joe Biden told reporters after meeting with a wide range of interest groups on guns. Biden was tasked by President Barack Obama to head up a task force to provide recommendations to reduce gun violence.

Biden said he was surprised to see a new face at the table: “evangelical groups, who generally have been reluctant to engage in this, because it’s been viewed as maybe an attack on cultural norms relating to rural communities and gun ownership.”

Newtown could mark a tipping point on gun control for evangelicals.

So we have the “many” syndrome, at least twice, followed by the classic “could mark” language to soften the fact claim on which the story is based. Also, I don’t know many conservative Christians who would claim that the gun issue rests on a “sacred” right, as opposed to a constitutional right. Then again, I am rather pro-gun control, so the odds are good that I don’t hang out with the right theological crowd.

Also, allow me to note that when discussing trends among conservative evangelical Protestants, Biden would not be one of my go-to voices to add authority to my fact claims. Just sayin’.

So what does this story offer in terms of authority, to back up that crucial “many” language in the lede about religious groups changing their views on guns? To be specific, what is the authority for the claim about evangelical Protestants?

If you said, “Quotes from one evangelical pastor, drawn from an opinion piece written FOR CNN,” then you should win some kind of prize. You can read that quote for yourself.

The story does offer some poll numbers that point to a religious divide on this issue. However, I kept wondering what, precisely, one needed to believe in order to be pro- or anti-gun control.

There are, you know, quite a few different proposals out there and some people support some of these proposals and reject one or more of the others. I know people who are all over the map on this issue, even if they could be grouped — like me — into the pro-gun control camp. (This recent cover story in The Atlantic remains a great starting point for discussions.)

Here is the key poll information in this particular CNN report:

“Most religious groups actually line up in support of stricter gun control laws,” said pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. “The group that really stands out is white evangelical Protestants as the group most strongly opposed to stricter gun control laws,” he said.

An August survey by the research institute found about 60% of Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans support stricter gun control laws, compared to just 35% of white evangelical Protestants and 42% of white mainline Protestants. That survey came after the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater but before the shooting in the Connecticut elementary school.

Jones said culture and geography also played a role in the differences among groups.

The research institute found that white evangelicals are also the most likely religious denomination to own guns. Many live in southern and rural areas where guns are a way of life.

The story does offer a voice on the theological left describing what is claimed — with no back-up information to prove this is the case — to be a conservative scriptural basis for pro-gun views. The former Barack Obama campaign adviser shoots this point of view down rather easily, which is no surprise.

The story also offers one evangelical leader who offers a more complex view of gun control than the norm. But notice that this evangelical leader does not actually reject any specific gun-control concepts or legislation. Also notice the nice grammatical error, with the Family Research Council (singular), then being quoted as a “they” (plural). That’s another purple-pen special. But, I digress.

The focus cannot be on guns alone for many Christians, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence, according to the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group. They said the focus should not only be on the guns themselves, but also on the environment that gives rise to this type of violence.

“When you have 40% of America’s children being born into homes without fathers, we shouldn’t be surprised to see this rise in violence. You cannot look at one aspect of this and say that it’s simply because we don’t have a ban on assault weapons,” said the council’s president, Tony Perkins.

“I’m not saying there is not merit to have a discussion about gun ownership,” Perkins said. “I do believe we have a Second Amendment right and that a law abiding citizen should have the right to protect themselves. What we are saying here at the Family Research Council is when we have a discussion about the violence that is taking place here in our nation, we cannot overlook the role that the family plays in this environment.”

Now, if Perkins said the discussion cannot be on gun control “alone” — this is a paraphrase quote — then bully for him (from my point of view). In these quotes, Perkins is actually not taking a stand one way or the other on gun-control specifics. Is he one of the “many” who are against gun control of the “many” who are said to be changing their minds?

Yes, how would we know?

That’s a problem in a news story. God is in the details.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The pro-gun control lobby clearly wins the debate based on one factor–the media’s settling on gun control as the issue to be reported on, debated, surveyed on, given in-depth looks, etc. And whoever controls the debate usually wins it. ….

  • sari

    “The research institute found that white evangelicals are also the most likely religious denomination to own guns. Many live in southern and rural areas where guns are a way of life.”

    I particularly liked the quote above, which completely ignores the way guns are used in rural areas. Many (sorry, tmatt) folks I knew and know follow the hunting seasons, some to the point where they have no need to supplement with supermarket meat. So, it’s important to describe what those Bible-thumping, gun-toting country evangelicals are packing and why.

    Unlike the Deacon, this is not a debate the media will control or win; guns are an integral part of American history and culture. Nor do I think the quote from Biden was inappropriate, tmatt, since he has been entrusted with this particular issue by President Obama and has been involved in gun control legislation for many years prior to becoming Vice President. In that respect, he should be quite knowledgeable as to the historic and new players at the table. If even some evangelicals and/or their leaders have shifted position, that’s news. What’s missing is the who, the why, and the religious rationale. I thought the quote from the FRC to be superfluous and irrelevant to the conversation.

  • tmatt

    SARI:
    Oh, the quote from Biden was “appropriate” in that it is part of the political story; I was saying that a quote from Biden really doesn’t tell you anything about what evangelicals believe and why they believe it.

    And that’s the hole in the story.

  • sari

    tmatt, you said: “Also, allow me to note that when discussing trends among conservative evangelical Protestants, Biden would not be one of my go-to voices to add authority to my fact claims.”

    You intimated that VP Biden is an unreliable source. Given his long history in the area of gun control legislation and his penchant for visiting with exactly the rural constituency under discussion, he probably has better working knowledge of the players than the majority of legislators and reporters. I absolutely agree that the reporter should have pushed for and provided more specifics on who the purported evangelicals were and why they (might have) shifted their position, but disagree with your statement above.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    Well, I sure don’t question his knowledge of his side of the gun-control issue. How you trust him on matters of evangelical thought escapes me. We will have to agree to disagree on Biden as an authority on evangelical life.

  • John M.

    Proposed headline for this piece: “CNN Really, Really Wants White Evangelicals to Shift Position on Gun Control”.

    Which really isn’t news.

    -John

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I continue to be amazed at how I have not seena single piece of reporting on the question of the Newtown school board’s responsibility for security at its schools, especially now that there is an armed guard posted at the school the Newtown students are attending in order to make them feel safe. Is it going to continue indefinitely? What about guards for the other schools in the area? What about the school boards in other communities? Are the schools in Aurora, Colorado going to get guards? How about in the schools in the community in Oregon where someone tried shooting shopping mall customers? If school boards are deciding that it is NOT WORTH THE COST of guards to protect school children, isn’t that the kind of decision about public safety that ought to be debated by the public? …