Public Opinion

Will the Media Treat Navy Yard Like Newtown?

Sep 17 '13

This is a guest post by my GW colleague Danny Hayes.


In the aftermath of Monday’s deadly rampage at Washington’s Navy Yard, gun control will no doubt surge back into the news. But how long will it stay there?

If the months since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre are any indication, the media are likely to lose interest quickly – unless gun control makes its way back onto the legislative agenda.

As has been documented elsewhere, news coverage after mass shootings follows a pattern. In a shooting’s immediate wake, gun control coverage spikes, before receding back into relative obscurity. This happened after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the 2012 attack at an Aurora, Co. movie theater.

But the pattern following Sandy Hook was different, and instructive. The graph below displays the number of stories that included the phrase “gun control” for each week since December 2012. The data come from a search of more than 500 outlets in the U.S. News & Wires database in Lexis-Nexis.


Like with other shootings, gun control coverage increased dramatically after the Newtown massacre, but tailed off within a few weeks. But in contrast to other cases, gun control arrived back on the front page in early January, when President Obama issued a series of executive actions intended to reduce gun violence.

The president’s influence, however immediate, was short-lived, as media attention fell off through the early spring. It was only in April – when a Senate bill to expand background checks failed to surmount a filibuster – that the issue gained prominence again.

Since the bill’s demise, gun control has largely disappeared from debates on Capitol Hill – and with it, the news. While advocates have continued to push for change at both the state and federal levels (with one group coincidentally on lobbying trip to Washington this week), the national media’s interest has continued to wane. Even Giffords’ nationwide tour in July failed to stop the slide.

This pattern suggests that only if Sen. Dianne Feinstein gets her way, with Congress taking up gun control legislation once again, will a renewed media debate over gun control occur. If political leaders in Washington decide the issue isn’t worth pursuing, the media are likely to turn their attention elsewhere – whether back to Syria, the next NSA intelligence-gathering revelation, or the looming battle over the debt ceiling.