Why So-so Reporting is So, So wrong
So we’re sold this idea that reporting is about the truth, when it’s really about emotion and selling advert space.
It’s no surprise that the truth is often discarded like the foil wrapper on so many Easter eggs this time of year. Sometimes it is naivety on the journalist’s behalf; sometimes the facts are lost in a rush to get something to ‘print’ and sometimes it’s just plain bias or incompetence that results in a terrible article getting published.
It’s not just firearm issues that are subject to poor reporting, but that’s what I’m going to talk about here because that’s the industry I’m invested in. I tend to not read the mainstream newspapers or watch the news each evening because I find that most of it is so negative that I walk away worse off than before. But the issues that do matter to me I’ll get ahold of one way or another and it’s usually my friends who are forwarding me articles or putting a certain page of the paper on my desk or recommending me to read something because I’ll find it interesting.
Last week I was sent a link to a West Australian article written by Joe Spagnolo about firearms going missing in WA. This article is a prime example of a reporter completely misrepresenting the facts.
It starts off innocent enough, with Spagnolo mis-representing the number of firearms owners in Western Australia.
“The statistics, released in State Parliament, show that 1513 licensed guns had not been recovered by police after hundreds of firearms were either reported lost or stolen in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
One in every eight West Australians now owns a gun, with 329,743 licensed firearms reported last November. This is up from 275,424 six years ago.
Opposition police spokesman Peter Katsambanis has described the figures as “alarming”, saying there needed to be more police resources put into recovering the guns.”
Reading those numbers, they are not obviously wrong because all the numbers aren’t there. But with a little bit more information it becomes blaringly obvious –
Population of WA 2.589 Million
Number of firearm license holders approx. 90,000
Number of licensed firearms in Western Australia 329,743
1 in every 8 West Australian do not own a gun. There are 8 times the number of people in Western Australia than there are guns – this figure doesn’t really mean anything. The actual figure is closer to ‘one in every 28 West Australians owns a gun’, and each of those firearm owners has an average of 3.6 firearms. This may just be a result of Spagnolo’s naivety regarding firearms and numbers – maybe he assumed that each firearm owner only owned one firearm each. Or perhaps he just breezed over the figures without reading them – rushing to get it done before his looming deadline. A careless mistake. Or perhaps this was intentional – an attempt to exaggerate the numbers to evoke a more emotional response from the reader.
What is disturbing is the order which Spagnolo decided to write the report, with his reference to Katsambanis being alarmed by the numbers being left to last. But which numbers is Katsambanis alarmed by? The number of firearms in the community (the number preceding the comment) or the number of firearms being lost over the last few years? A quick phone call to the office of the Hon Mr Katsambanis cleared this up immediately – he was alarmed by the number of firearms going missing, not by the number of firearms in the community.
This may seem innocent enough but the implications for the uneducated reader is very serious. If someone reading the story deciphered it to read that Katsambanis was alarmed there were 329,743 firearms in the community, they may think they too need to be alarmed by that figure. Unnecessarily creating fear about a certain topic is a great way to sell papers but does nothing to correctly educate the public.
“Police Minister Michelle Roberts said police had undertaken several operations to track down, and seize, unlicensed and missing firearms as well as make sure licensed firearm owners correctly stored their guns.
One of those was Operation Bluesun which resulted in the seizure of more than 402 firearms and more than 33,000 rounds of ammunition.
‘In addition to that, we held a gun amnesty in June 2017. That gun amnesty brought back into custody some 1200 guns that were surrendered by the community,’ she said.”
So both operations that the Police Minister quotes as methods police are using to seize firearms are targeting law abiding firearm owners. If there was more to the interview, where the Police Minister provided information to suggest the Police are not only targeting licensed firearm owners, it certainly didn’t make it into the article. My gut feeling is that she only spoke about the issues popular with the public, and the reporter just ate it. A reporter should be picking up on the red herrings and calling politicians on it.
If asked what other operations were underway to recover stolen or lost firearms, I imagine the Police Minister or Commissioner would simply say “This is confidential”, “this is an internal Police matter” or some other dismissive comment. Only 18% of firearms that are lost or stolen are ever recovered by Police. At the rate stolen firearms are recovered by Police it would take the 15 years to recover the number of firearms handed in during an amnesty.
If the Police are investing considerable time and money into recovering unlicensed firearms, they are not giving the Western Australian public value. If they are not investing the time or money (which is why the recovery rates are so low), and instead choosing to target firearm license holders, how can the Police minister claim;
“ the Commissioner of Police takes illicit firearms in the community really seriously.”
These are all questions should have been asked by Spagnolo.
A balanced article would have included comment from those within the firearms industry. The SSAA is perhaps the largest organisation representing the shooting sport in Western Australia. The Western Australian Firearms Traders Association (WAFTA) represents the firearms industry in Western Australia. Spagnolo did not seek the opinion of either of these organisations.
To summarise – There are many forms of mis-information that can appear in a news article.
- Incorrect or misleading figures quoted
- The order of comments presented being misleading
- Not questioning misleading answers (or questioning other rhetorical devices utilised by those being investigated)
- Not seeking to write a balanced, unbiased article
Spagnolo’s article can be viewed at https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/wa-missing-1513-licensed-guns-either-lost-or-stolen-in-past-three-years-ng-b881145320z