Tag Archives: News

Gunning For Change: Gun Safety in America

Whatever one’s feelings about the 2nd amendment, individuals’ gun rights should not supersede the health and safety of the American people.

I was in middle school when the massacre at Columbine happened. Everyone was devastated and appalled – those kids were only a little bit older than we were! What if it had been us? Our school officials took that reaction to its next logical step and started preparing us for such an eventuality with “lockdown” drills. We turned off the lights, closed the shades, and hid – scrunching along the wall that bordered the classroom door to avoid scrutiny from the door’s window. We were told not to let anyone in, regardless of who they were or how much they begged and pleaded. Anybody could be a potential shooter or hostage. The exercise was equal parts terrifying and surreal.

That was 17 years ago and what scares me more than the possibility of my own demise is how commonplace such carnage has become in our country. The actions that shocked us in their gruesomeness have now become almost banal in their regularity. Reports on the number of mass shootings vary depending on sources’ definitions and available information, but tend to agree that that number has increased in recent years. The American Journal for Public Health (AJPH) published a report on the matter:

By most estimates, there were fewer than 200 mass shootings reported in the United States often defined as crimes in which four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events between 1982 and 2012. [27, 28] Recent reports suggest that 160 of these events occurred after the year 2000 [29] and that mass shootings rose particularly in 2013 and 2014. [28]

As frightening as such occurrences are, people killed in mass shootings make up less than half of 1 percent of the people shot to death in the United States. Gun violence, including suicide, kills some 30,000 Americans every year. According to Snopes, toddlers actually kill more people (accidentally) than potential or suspected Islamic terrorists within the US. And yet, the frenzy of fear surrounding the latter group has fueled infinitely more federal and state action.

Vivek Murthy, served as the 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States under President Obama and President Biden. was clear in his opinion that guns have become a public health issue. In fact, many cite the NRA’s lobbying efforts against him as the reason his nomination took over a year to receive approval. It makes sense, though, that he would be concerned about something that has such a profound effect on the safety of the American people.

“Guns are a consumer product. We’ve taken a public health approach to reducing product-related injury for every other product, from automobiles, to toys, to airplanes. Every product is regulated from a health and safety perspective with the goal of reducing accident and injury. The only exception is guns,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center.

 Comic relief: SNL’s take on the safety of consumer products.

 

Certain politicians enjoy passing this off as a mental health issue, reasoning that it’s not the guns, but the crazy people holding them that we have to control. It’s not actually that simple – most people who have mental illnesses pose no harm to themselves or others.

… surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes. According to Appelbaum, [25] less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. 26 (AJPH)

Believe it or not, you don’t actually have to be “crazy” to want to hurt someone (or act on that thought). Not only that, but the same politicians who use the mentally ill as scapegoats refuse to pass legislation that would actually benefit their wellbeing. Yes, we do need reform on how we treat people with mental illness, but that’s not the question at hand.

The real issue here is that we need to get serious about reforming our gun control laws. This isn’t even a radical idea – the vast majority of Americans agree that at the least, we need more background checks and enforcement of existing regulation.

Chris Rock has famously said that we would be better served regulating bullets (pricing them at $5,000 each) than guns. Maybe he’s right. In any case, we need to start looking into creative and common sense ways to fix this problem.

Trump Bans Journalists; Will They Respond with Blackout?

The *President’s Problematic Censorship Needs Appropriate Reaction

Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan and…the US?

Those first six countries are listed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the countries that are the worst offenders when it comes to censoring journalists.

Will the US join the list?

It’s not as crazy as it might seem. If current practice is any indication, a Trump presidency might well put the US on that shameful list.

You see, Trump has already banned an enormous number of news organizations from attending his events.  Seasoned journalists say they have never witnessed anything like it before in this country.  Occasionally, a journalist will get bounced from a presidential candidate’s airplane or bus, but this is on a scale that’s unprecedented.  The current list of banned media organizations (which, by the way, continues to grow) includes the Washington Post, Politico, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Gawker, Foreign Policy, Fusion, Univision, Mother Jones, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Des Moines Register and the Daily Beast.

And journalists cannot even find out why or what criteria are used to justify their banishment. According to this story, it would seem that a journalist gets banned when Trump reads something written about him or his campaign with which he disagrees and then throws what can only be described as a hissy fit.  This hissy fit is apparently key; after the throwing of the fit, Trump’s so-called campaign press secretary, Hope Hicks, playing the role of enforcer, makes sure whoever wrote the piece is banned.

Imagine now that this sort of behavior is carried into a Trump White House although, in this CNN story, Trump denies that he’d continue the ban if elected.

The Washington Post, one of the Trump-banned media organizations, has suggested that all of the press corps stop playing Trump’s game and join in a blackout on Trump coverage. WaPo opinion writer Dana Millbank gets more specific:

“I don’t mean an outright ban of Trump coverage. That would be shirking our civic responsibility. But I suggest an end to the uncritical, free publicity that propelled him to the GOP nomination in the first place:

  • No more live, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies and events; this sort of “coverage,” particularly by cable news outlets, has been a huge in-kind contribution to Trump.
  • No more Trump call-ins to TV shows; this enables him to plant falsehoods with little risk of follow-up.
  • Rigorous use of real-time fact-checking, pointing out Trump’s falsehoods in the stories in which they’re reported. That’s not injecting opinion — it’s stating fact.”

Sounds like a good idea to us.

“A democracy ceases to be a democracy if its citizens do not participate in its governance. To participate intelligently, they must know what their government has done, is doing and plans to do in their name. Whenever any hindrance, no matter what its name, is placed in the way of this information, a democracy is weakened, and its future endangered. This is the meaning of freedom of press. It is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”

Walter Cronkite; Broadcast journalist 

Truthiness: How Hard Can the Windbags Blow?

Truth, Fact, Interpretation, Misdirection – In An Age of Liars, We Need A Decoder Ring

Think about this: we know the difference between truth and lies. Presumably, we form our opinions from the information given to us. Certainly, this ought to be the case for things like policy decisions. Shouldn’t our elected officials be able to incorporate relevant facts and factors into their plans of what to do next? Stephen Colbert’s “Truthiness” is alarmingly relevant right now.

When I was in college, I took a tremendous class from well-known writer Francine Prose, called “Language, Literature, and Lies.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was a great primer for my work in PR. One of the most lasting exercises was to read the same big news story in three major outlets (The New York Times, The New York Post, and The Guardian). We pored over the articles, picking out how the authors referred to their subjects (e.g. President Obama, Barack Obama, Obama, Mr. Obama, the president, etc.), which snippets of quotes they chose to cite, how they framed an issue, and who they gave the last word. Subtle choices conveyed biases. As humans, it is nearly impossible for us to describe happenings completely objectively – the nature of language is that it necessarily filters everything through our own lens; our own version of truth.

That said, while most media outlets use specific language to shape their version of events, they still stick to the same basic facts in news. That’s something we expect; why read or watch news if none of it is true? So it is jarring to note that when it comes to picking candidates for the presidency, many voters are keen to disregard flat out lies so long as they serve a particular agenda. The author of Wag the Dog recently wrote a biting op-ed about this in Al Jazeera, and multiple papers have referenced Politifact’s “Truth-O-Meter” with regards to candidate claims (it ranges from true to pants on fire).

I’m a big proponent of free speech, but I do believe that there is a difference between fact and opinion. Facts are, by nature, true. They are true whether you believe them or not. The converse is not the case. Unfortunately for some of us dreamers, simply believing something very fervently does not magically make it true. There is a danger to pandering to that falsehood. We can handle the truth, and we must if we expect to do anything helpful or relevant in life.

Stephen Colbert: Truthiness

Status Report: Reporters

Those of us who have worked either in the field of journalism or alongside it for at least a couple years have seen a dramatic shift in structure over a very short period of time. Papers don’t sell like they used to, especially when everyone expects information to be readily available and free (and advertisers don’t want to pay for something that not many people see), so the business model has had to change with the times.

Over the last three years, just about every major news outlet in New York City has effectively gutted its staff. The New York Times, the New York Post, The Village Voice, and WBAI radio, each fired at least a third of its staff, and the list continues. The New York Daily News, once renowned for its coverage of local stories, dissolved each of its bureaus situated in the outer boroughs. So what does that mean for reporters? Is journalism a dead profession whose practitioners are SOL, or is there more to the story?

I’ve debated this with friends, colleagues and media contacts alike. Some see the future as relatively bleak: without the large papers, etc. providing job security, writers are forced to scrape together an existence piece-meal as freelancers, with meager earnings for individual stories. On the other hand, this phenomenon has also given rise to countless blogs and websites – often specific to certain topics. Some of them act just the same as a brick and mortar outlet, minus the paper. It’s a whole wide web out there, and we are learning to adjust our perception of where we go for our news.

Meanwhile, we hold our reporters accountable for a lot more than we did previously. Not only does the internet’s never-ending clamor for information mean that we want our news NOW, 24/7, which sort of rules out a regular-hours kind of gig; we also assume journalists will constantly update their social media pages at the same time. Our impatience means that many outlets are no longer willing to let their employees spend the time and resources on long-term investigative reporting (this is less recent than some of the other changes). What would have happened if Woodward and Bernstein couldn’t do the research needed to back up one of the biggest national stories of the 20th Century because they had to live tweet a celebrity event?

Ironically, while we expect a lot from our news sources, all this pressure – the financial stress, the extra duties for full-time reporters, the tighter deadlines, and the global marketplace – has led to a common response: cut back on both the quantity and quality of their product. After all, it’s quicker and cheaper to stream headline feeds from other outlets than to focus on (wo)man-on-the-street stories.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who bemoans this loss, and some fields have seen a resurgence in thorough reportage. New York Magazine, for instance, just published the horrific story about Bill Cosby’s victims, in which it interviewed each of the women – not a trivial task when 35 of them have come forward to speak.

There are still jobs for enterprising writers and quality information is still out there, you just have to look harder – and know what you’re looking for. It’s less likely that you’ll stumble across a serious exposé about such and such as you fold your paper to make room for your breakfast and coffee, but hey – given how much time we spend collectively browsing the internet for interesting tidbits and “sharing” them, maybe all hope is not lost.

Warning Signs: Inoculation Against Action

We all do it. Your mom tells you to clean your room, or take out the trash. You say, “Yeah, I’ll get to that,” then promptly forget to do so. She tells you again; you agree again. Eventually you stop actually listening to her. “Yeah, yeah, OK.” The problem is that we apply these same habits when it comes to bigger problems and the stakes are higher than a tongue lashing or grounding.

Climate change, police brutality, student debt, wealth distribution… these are all big issues that are confronting our world today, each of which has disastrous consequences for our present and future. How many times have you heard about them recently? How many articles, pictures and petitions have you seen go by on your Facebook feed? Now be honest: do you actually read or pay attention to each of these? When someone gives the rallying cry of “We are the 99%,” does it still bring your blood to a boil the same way that it did when you first heard that 1% of the world’s population owns almost half of its wealth? Or do you roll your eyes and say, “We already knew that”?

The media does the same thing. As a pr professional, I see it more keenly because I’m constantly trying to get outlets interested in certain stories. When you’re dealing with an ongoing issue – even when it’s important, affects a lot of people and has a heart-rending human element to it – after a while, the reporters get sick of covering it. They want to know what’s new. It’s called news, after all.

Pretty soon, the message that climate change is happening, the ice caps are melting and we need to take immediate action starts to sound an awful lot like the notices you get that your subscription to such and such service is expiring and you must “Act Now.” This is dangerous on a lot of levels. While it’s true that out of sight is out of mind, the converse seems to be the case as well; the over-coverage makes these issues nothing more than background noise. Of course we care, but much in the same way that we are more likely to donate money at the onset of a natural disaster than later on in the recovery process, our impetus to act fades away. And yet, in order to make an actual difference, we need to hold on to our outrage and remind ourselves that we need to do something about these issues and it has to be more than once.

Climate Change and Balance in the Media

We have a couple of clients involved in climate change – esteemed climate scientist Micha Tomkiewicz and a theater group, Theater Three Collaborative; the theater group is trying to fully produce a climate change play called, “Extreme Whether.”  So, we are always on the lookout for developments in climate change and in opportunities to join the conversation.

Recently, we noted an interesting media development on climate change that caused quite a stir.

On October 8th, the LA Times’ editor of its letters to the editor, Paul Thornton, declared that he doesn’t print letters asserting that “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change.” He went on to say, “Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a body made up of the world’s top climate scientists — said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us. Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

The right wing news site, NewsBusters, actually kicked off the whole controversy when it claimed that LA Times’ editorial writer Joe Healy, in a longer piece, had said that “letters that have an untrue basis (for example, ones that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change) do not get printed.” That is what prompted Paul Thornton to write his piece and to correct NewsBusters.

As you can imagine, the responses came fast and furious, especially from climate change deniers, accusing the LA Times of impeding free speech, among other things.  Of course, Newsbusters itself was one of the first out of the gate:  “So letters to the editor ‘that say there’s no sign humans have caused climate change…do not get printed.’  That’s quite a statement coming from a writer not named Al Gore.” And, naturally, the right wing “commenters” were out in force.  “It’s not just in California; liberals in the media are doing it everywhere. The primary tool of Marxism is propaganda. The truth hurts their cause;” “Climate change: this is not science – it’s mumbo jumbo.” “At the risk of stating the obvious, the MSM (mainstream media) has devolved into a Soviet-style propaganda arm for the Washington establishment and virtually every leftist cause brought forth. The fact that the Feral Government is devolving into a fascist oligarchy is undoubtedly more than coincidence.”

For those who believe in actual science, however, it was welcome news to hear the LA Times express out loud what virtually everyone has known for quite a while:  climate change is real, and humans have contributed to it.  If you read the whole piece that Thornton wrote you will see that he is not actually saying that the LA Times will never print a letter in opposition to the human-induced climate change theory; what the LA Times is objecting to is printing the kind of silly, baseless non-scientific claims that are often made by the right when referring to climate change.  Thornton says, “As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they “deny” it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom.”

To follow up on the Paul Thornton’s column, Mother Jones magazine asked the opinion page editors of the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Tampa Bay Times, USA Today, the Plain Dealer, The Houston Chronicle, the Denver Post, and the San Diego Union-Tribune if they’d follow the Washington Post’s lead on climate change denier letters to the editor.  There was a general consensus that most of the outlets wouldn’t publish “factually inaccurate letters,” but, except for the Washington Post, whose editor agreed outright with the LA Times, many of the other outlets responded cautiously or in line with their paper’s editorial stance on climate change.  The whole article, How 9 Major Papers Deal with Climate Denying Letters, is a very interesting and enlightening read and a peek into how editorial and opinion pages are molded.

For us, it brings up the journalistic idea of balance wherein journalists try to get “both sides” of a news story.  But what if there is no balance?  Certainly, while part of the climate change story does include the fact that there are some people who deny that humans are helping to cause global warming, the deniers, by and large, are basing their claims on right wing political views, not real science.   Should journalists feel compelled to include that in their stories?  Currently, the jury’s out on this one, but we certainly don’t think so.