Negative media coverage benefits gun rights supporters and NRA

June 24, 1999

ANN ARBOR—The recent onslaught of unfavorable media coverage given to gun rights advocates and the National Rifle Association (NRA) is actually a boon to NRA membership and will help increase its influence, says a University of Michigan researcher.
“The more negative media coverage the NRA receives, the larger its membership grows,” says Brian A. Patrick, who recently earned a doctorate in communication at the
U-M. “In light of intense negative coverage received by the NRA as a result of the recent school shootings in Colorado and Georgia, membership in the NRA will increase markedly for a time and will continue to trend upward as it has in the past 30 years.
“In essence, the NRA has institutionalized around bad press, using it as a rallying point in mobilizing members.”
In an analysis of nearly 1,500 articles in what Patrick calls the “elite” press—New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor—from 1990 until 1998, Patrick compared the coverage of the NRA with that of the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and Handgun Control Inc. (HCI).
He found that although the NRA garnered much more negative coverage than the other four interest groups along 16 objectively defined measures, the gun rights group increased its membership by more than 1 million to a high of 3.6 million during this time. Currently, membership is roughly 3 million with a core of about 500,000 life members.
Patrick’s research shows a strong correlation between NRA membership and the number of negative editorials and op-ed articles. In other words, the greater the number of unfavorable editorials and op-eds about guns and the NRA in the “elite” press, the larger the increase in new NRA members.
“This should not be interpreted as meaning that the average hog farmer in Iowa happens to read a strident anti-NRA editorial over brunch while browsing the Sunday New York Times and the next day joins the NRA,” Patrick says. “The frequency of editorials should be regarded as representative of negative NRA media coverage in general. A more reasonable scenario would be that the hog farmer is exposed to waves of gun-related coverage emanating from national news sources.”
According to Patrick, 87 percent of editorials and op-eds covering the NRA are negative, while 52 percent of those on the NAACP, ACLU, AARP and HCI, collectively, are unfavorable. The editorial treatment of the NRA relative to other interest groups, he says, is due in large part to policy positions of editors, whose commentaries contain an
unrestrained tone and semantics, “the likes of which are seldom directed at non-NRA groups.”
In straight news coverage, Patrick found that the NRA averages little more than a paragraph of direct quotes or attributed viewpoints per article, compared with about three for the other interest groups in the study. Negative verbs of attribution, such as “claims,” “contends,” “asserts” and “argues”—rather than the more neutral “says” or “said”—also are used more often for NRA sources than for other sources.
“What this appears to do is to qualify NRA positions as tentative while representing the opinions of other sources as undisputed fact,” Patrick says.
His research also shows that less than 20 percent of NRA officials quoted are identified with their proper organizational titles, compared with about 73 percent and 64 percent of NAACP and HCI sources, respectively, and nearly half of the sources for the ACLU and AARP. Mostly, NRA sources are referred to as “lobbyists” and are, more often than other interest groups, portrayed as having negative or unsympathetic personality traits, Patrick says.
Moreover, compared with other interest groups, the NRA is regularly mocked or satirized in news coverage and belittled with a greater number of joke headlines, he says. About 27 percent of the headlines for NRA stories since 1990 have used a joke or pun—more than twice the rate for any of the other interest groups.
Examples include: “The gun lobby, over a barrel,” “NRA way off target,” “Faltering NRA finds itself under the gun,” “Have gun, will shoot,” “NRA, in crosshairs of critics, fires fresh volley of words,” and “Did NRA shoot itself in the foot?”
In addition, compared to other interest groups, the NRA is much less likely to attract media attention for what Patrick calls “pseudo-events”—news conferences, special events, demonstrations, reports, news releases, etc. Less than 7 percent of NRA coverage consists of these types of events, while such coverage ranges from about 29 percent to 43 percent for each of the other groups in the study.
Further, the NRA is more than twice as likely as the other groups to be described as a “lobby” or “special interest group”—terms that tend to have negative and anti-democratic connotations, Patrick says. Other groups are more likely to be referred to with more positive labels, such as an “advocacy group” or “citizen group.”
Finally, only about 6 percent of NRA coverage includes photos of NRA officials or events, compared with 27 percent for the NAACP, ACLU, AARP and HCI, combined, Patrick says.
“In all, the NRA is indeed treated much differently than the other groups,” he says. “And these differences are systematic, meaning they persist over time, across media sources and for many content categories across all article types. All this is not to say there is no fair coverage of the NRA or even that fair coverage is rare. On the whole, though, the numbers and proportions reported for the content categories speak for themselves.
“But since NRA communication strategies are measurably premised upon ‘conflict’ and ‘media bias’ themes, it may prove that negative press coverage, whether it is caused by elite journalists, cultural or class bias, whether actual or alleged, is an indispensable mobilizing tool of the NRA, providing fuel for activism, membership increase, fund raising and single-issue voting.”

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