This latest “bespoke” video magazine feature in the BBC’s “Altered States”* series really appears on the surface to be not only a balanced presentation on gun rights and laws, but could actually be interpreted by people not paying attention as being biased in favor of gun advocates. It isn’t, but it’s very cleverly disguised.
Remember the choice of “more” and “more” in this title for later. First, let me point out that this video piece was put together without BBC influence or prompting. It was made by Charles Ledford, who recently became Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He seems to be a recent hire, as he only finished his MA less than two years ago. From what I’ve been able to find online, Ledford is into exactly the kind of new digital media journalism that the BBC has been pushing for the last couple of years, and which many see as the future of journalism, full stop. No problem there, I’m just pointing out why the BBC looked to him for content. It makes perfect sense from a newsgathering standpoint.
(UPDATE: John Boch, from Guns Save Life has posted a comment below.)
Now for the bias. If we judge this piece simply on the basis of how much time is given to each side of the debate, then gun advocates win handily. More time is definitely given to their side. However, Ledford very cleverly undermines all of it.
Ledford was, for reasons unknown (not necessarily devious, just literally unknown to me, and the BBC doesn’t reveal any), doing some video journalism on the issue of gun rights for some time before the Newtown mass murder happened. So this piece was clearly not created with that particular agenda in mind. Was there an agenda anyway? I think so.
The first segment features gun advocates from the Guns Save Life group in Illinois. One of the Directors, John Naese, who seems to be acting as spokesman here, is given uninterrupted air time to explain the group’s positions on gun ownership laws.
The blurb accompanying the video on the BBC website says that Guns Save Life “are arguing for more permissive gun laws”. But are they? Considering that politicians in Illinois and in other parts of the country are always trying to enact ever more restrictive gun laws, one could just as easily say that the group is arguing to protect existing gun rights. But that would be speaking from their side of the argument. The opposite side of the argument is that they want more permissive gun laws. This bias is inherent in Ledford’s production and in the headline provided by the BBC sub editor. “More guns”. Gun advocates don’t necessarily want more guns, they just want to be allowed to keep what they own, and for citizens to keep the rights they already have. That’s not “more”.
The blurb also claims that Ledford’s video provides “an insight into the strongly held beliefs that influence discussion on this topic”. It doesn’t. What it really does is show you one perspective on the people who strongly hold certain beliefs about gun rights. Which is actually the goal of the piece. Naese pretty much just spells out the position on gun rights. There is no insight offered into the beliefs themselves. Nothing new is offered. But to people like Leford and the BBC editor who thought this was great stuff, the key is that they look down on the people who hold those beliefs.
The clever bit, though, comes after the segment featuring the Guns Save Life meeting. At the meeting, we’re treated to a scene of members reading out humorous rhymes about self defense. We then segue to the mother of a victim of some mass murder. Naturally, she is going to hold absolute moral authority, and actually claims it herself.
The first words out of the mother’s mouth are: “I don’t have a sense of humor about deadly force”.
Ooh, cuts you right to the quick, doesn’t it? Just look at those fat, hirsute, rednecks laughin’ about killin’. Pretty much destroys their argument, no? Well, no. The light-hearted scene has nothing whatsoever to do with the real attitude about gun rights, the right to bear arms, the right to self-defense. But that’s the “insight” Ledford wants to show you, and the brilliant point the BBC editor who selected this for publication saw and felt you needed to see. It’s fairly obvious that Ledford (or a student he sent over to do the interview) showed the woman footage of the fat old rednecks reading their little jokes, and asked something like, “So, what do you think of these assholes?”
Then the mother claims absolute moral authority by stating that the joking gun owners don’t know what it’s like to to lose a loved one.
If one goes by the stopwatch or word count, sure, the gun advocates get the lion’s share of the piece. But it’s very obvious where the weight of the feature lies: with the absolute moral authority of the mother who lost her only child. It doesn’t get more tear-jerking than that. The gun advocates are even given the last word, but it’s just more boilerplate, more simple spelling out of their position: banning guns doesn’t help. There’s no insight, no actual argument being made.
This, to the BBC, is the entire argument about gun rights in a nutshell: stupid rednecks who have no clue love their guns, while the reality is that innocents are killed and it hurts all of us. At no point are we given any actual insight into the gun owners’ beliefs, but we are given insight into why some people are against gun ownership. One side is portrayed as serious, based on morality and compassion, while the other side is portrayed as a figure of fun. It’s a biased piece, intended to denigrate gun rights advocates while elevating those on the other side of the argument.
Again, Ledford did this on his own. Or, at least, did part of it on his own and then got a follow-up quote or two from the Guns Save Life folks after the Newtown tragedy at the BBC’s behest. Either way, the goal is clear, which is why the BBC selected it for publication.
*I hate the BBC’s title “Altered States”. It has negative connotations, implies things have changed, and not necessarily for the better. It’s been a running theme in BBC reporting since we elected a black man as President that the country has become more divisive, more messed up, more racist. This title emphasizes that perspective. Yes, I know it’s a reference to the rather entertaining little sci-fi movie starring William Hurt about a scientist who manages to regress himself back to a primitive state of evolution. It just supports my point.