Never underestimate the partisanship that flows from even the most tragic of circumstances. The deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, that claimed the lives of 17 people immediately became a hotbed of fingerpointing.
It's understandable even the most hardened reporter will get emotional when a horrific event like this occurs. That said, the responsibility of journalists to report facts is never more critical than in a situation when emotions run high.
Unfortunately, some news outlets did not adhere to that, and it resulted in the spreading of misleading information.
As more details of the shooting at Parkland came in, a statistic began making the rounds that the shooting became the "18th school shooting in 2018." Time Magazine and a reporter at NBC repeated it in tweets. Others, such as Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California, also repeated the stat.
The statistic, however, is wrong.
The number comes from the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group co-founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that tweeted the information:
Everytown inflates the numbers by using a very broad definition of what constitutes a "school shooting." On their website they define a school shooting as "anytime a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds."
That's what allows them to claim a man committing suicide outside an elementary school that had been closed for seven months a "school shooting." Another example includes a man getting shot at 1 a.m. during a sorority event at Wake Forest University. Another example had to do with a gun accidentally getting discharged at a meeting of a criminal justice club at a college in Texas. Nobody was hurt, but Everytown still considered it a "school shooting."
Everyone would love for the number of school shootings to be zero. The problem is that to present the statistic in this way leads people to conclude that the school shootings being referred to are akin to the horrific incidents that too often flood the front pages. So it would be fair to sum up this reporting as sloppy, at best.
Another area where the press failed had to do with the issue of mental illness. President Donald Trump tweeted the following:
"So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!"
Some of the immediate responses came from the media. For example, CNN's Chris Cuomo tweeted the following:
"are you aware that one of the regulations you got rid of made it more difficult for mentally ill to get guns?"
Others in the press including MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily News and ABC World News Tonight repeated it.
While not as blatantly misleading as the 18-school-shootings statistic, the accusation against Trump is a stretch because it omits important context. Contrary to those who claimed it was all in deference to the National Rifle Association, the repeal of the rule had support from more than 20 disability groups as well as the ACLU. What did the measure do? The American Association of People With Disabilities said:
"This rule would require the Social Security Administration to forward the names of all Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit recipients who use a representative payee to help manage their benefits due to a mental impairment to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)."
The measure goes against all rational understanding of good governance. Having the Social Security Administration act as judge and jury is an affront to our legal system. As the ACLU notes in their letter to the Ways and Means Committee in support of undoing the rule, there is little due process protection before some bureaucrat at Social Security submits a name to the NICS database.
As much as people want to act on emotion, nothing will change unless people can discuss gun control and gun rights minus the histrionics. That would be easier if journalists are careful in their reporting. Most are, of course. But the problem is that when one reporter gets it wrong in a high profile story, the general public is apt to lose faith in the media more generally. And that hurts us all.