Mass shootings always are sure to garner extraordinary media attention–as they should—given the enormous tragedies that they generate, along with real public safety concerns. But how best to cover these events with a sense of journalistic integrity and ethical responsibility while not rewarding those who have been complicit in the act?
While it appears some major media outlets have adopted some policies regarding whether or not to report the suspect’s name (either before or after law enforcement apprehension), what appears to have received no consideration to date is the reporting of the gun’s brand name used in mass shootings. This is important since virtually all reporting about these shootings not only describes the type of gun involved, but invariably also mentions its brand name.
We now know that Devin Patrick Kelley, the gunman who entered a rural Texas church on Sunday, killed at least 26 people with a Ruger AR-556 rifle. Last year, Orlando terrorist Omer Mateen used a Glock 17 pistol and a Sig Sauer MCX; the Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof killed nine people with his .45-caliber Glock pistol.
The mention of the brand name gun of choice certainly can enable potential copycats to narrow their buying options quickly by just asking for the name and model number of the weapon they heard reported. But even if one discounts potential copycats, the increased brand awareness, and ultimately sales, sparked by free publicity for these companies is worth thoughtful consideration. According to Professor Bryan Sharp, director of the Ghrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, brand awareness — whether generated by paid advertising or free media attention — is one of the strongest drivers in stimulating individuals to buy, based simply on their ability to remember the brand name. And according to IBISWorld, “strong brand recognition is considered to be a major basis of competition” in the guns and ammunition manufacturing industry. Consequently, providing unpaid mentions to a mass audience via news reporting exposes the brand name to individuals who would not have otherwise been exposed to it through gun manufacturers’ paid advertising placements.
Although no empirical studies have been undertaken to date, it would be surprising if a random group of television viewers or website readers who remembered reporting on a recent mass shooting could not recall the brand name of the gun that was used. This brand awareness, generated and enhanced through repetitive media attention, also can have positive financial consequences for gun manufacturers.
Brand sales tend to spike after they are publicized when a mass shooting occurs, along with a rise in fear among gun owners that further government restrictions are forthcoming—perhaps even some type of outright ban on certain gun types. Arizona gun shop owner Greg Wolff noted that Glock semi-automatic pistols were selling at double the volume after the January 2011 shooting spree in Tucson where six people were killed and eighteen were critically wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Gun manufacturer advertising expenditures also increased 33 percent after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, according to research firm Kantar Media. While increased gun manufacturer advertising spending and fear of a government ban of certain weapons can contribute to a surge in sales after a publicized shooting, one cannot discount the impact on brand awareness and ultimately sales attributable to the free brand name mentions in mass shooting media coverage.
The public right-to-know argument seems tenuous in arguing that the brand of the weapon is germane to any story about a mass killing, regardless of motive. After all, we have parallel coverage of other mass killings that utilize weapons other than guns, without any accompanying brand name mentions. We know in gruesome detail the deathly violence committed by terrorists responsible for the 9/11 crashes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Their onboard weapon of choice was a boxcutter, yet no media outlet ever reported the brand name of that item.
We all learned of the careful planning by Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which remains as the worst domestic terrorism event in American history. They employed a fertilizer bomb, but no media outlet provided any enhanced brand awareness for the specific name of the fertilizer product that was used.
The 2014 mass stabbing by Elliot Roger near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus killed six people and injured fourteen others. We know that he brought a variety of handguns with him, including their brand names – Glock and Sig Sauer. Yet Roger did not use them to commit the multiple murders, resorting to knives instead. In contrast, the public was not told the brand name of the knives, nor did that brand anonymity detract in any way from understanding the story and its tragic implications.
Given that no other type of weapon is brand identified in mass killing stories, it seems to be an easy line for media outlets to draw for any future reporting under any circumstances. By striking out the brand name mention of the gun, enhanced brand awareness and potential sales increases will be diminished, at the least; copycat behavior also may be deterred due to an absence of brand identity. The gun brand names might inevitably be revealed through social media, but given mass media’s continuing dominance in reporting mass killings, the aim of limiting increased brand awareness could be met by an effective voluntary prohibition implemented by major media outlets in a blanket fashion.
No federal or state laws are required to make this happen, nor would any First or Second Amendment rights be threatened. Neither the press nor those interested in owning guns would be affected since no government-imposed restrictions would be involved. Politicians of all stripes also should be able to support this initiative in the name of responsible reporting, not increased regulation. Who, after all, would publicly complain that anyone’s rights are being trampled by not having a specific gun brand name mentioned in the media when a mass shooting takes place?