The shooting rampage in a Connecticut elementary school last week triggered a conversation different from those that followed other recent U.S. gun tragedies. In addition to an outpouring of emotion, social media and the opinion pages of newspapers were used immediately to tackle the polarizing issue of the nation’s gun laws, according to a special report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
On both blogs and Twitter, the gun policy discussion accounted for almost 30% of the social media conversation examined by PEJ, exceeding even prayers and expressions of sympathy in the three days following the December 14 massacre that left 26 dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. And, within that discussion, calls for stricter gun control measures exceeded defenses of current gun laws and policies by more than two to one.
This social media response is far different than what occurred following the January 8, 2011 shooting outside a Tucson Arizona mall that killed six and badly wounded Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords. In the first three days after that tragedy, the discussion about our country’s gun laws was barely present – representing just 3% of the social media conversation in all. Instead, bloggers and Twitter users posted mainly about the heated political discourse in our country and its possible relationship to the shooting. Similarly, in the social media response to the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012, outrage at the alleged perpetrator and the role of race in the incident overshadowed questions surrounding gun rights and Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute.
The heavy emphasis on gun policy–and support for stricter laws and enforcement–also played out in the nation’s newspaper opinion pages in the days immediately after the Newtown tragedy. An examination of op-ed columns and editorials in 11 of the nation’s newspapers from December 15-18 found that the discussion of gun laws was far more prevalent than other aspects of the tragedy, such as mental health or even sympathy for the victims. And, while just a snapshot of newspaper opinion pieces around the country, the tone was clear: those calling for stricter gun control outnumbered those defending current laws by a margin of more than 6 to 1.
The tragedy was also a top news event on YouTube. The most watched video by far, seen more than seven million times in the five days following that tragedy, was President Obama’s initial four-minute “>statement from the White House which he delivered hours after the news had broken, fighting off tears as he spoke.
These are some of the findings from a special PEJ report, which used several methods to examine different parts of the media reaction to the Connecticut shooting in the subsequent three days. For examining the response on Twitter and blogs, PEJ used a mix of traditional human coding with technology from the firm Crimson Hexagon. For the study of newspaper editorials and op-eds, researchers coded each of the relevant articles found in a sample of eleven newspapers spread throughout the country.
The Social Media Response
From the news of the shooting on Friday afternoon through noon on Monday, the discussion on blogs and Twitter paralleled each other closely. The discussion about our country’s gun laws ranked first on each platform, accounting for 28% of the overall conversation about the tragedy. And the focus remained remarkably steady over the course the three days, already registering at a quarter of the conversation on each platform by midnight on Friday.
What stood out even more was the degree to which the users advocating for more gun control were more numerous than those defending the current gun laws. On Twitter, the gap was three-to-one: 64% of the gun law conversation called for reform versus 21% that defended gun rights and 14% that was neutral. Similarly, 46% of blogs posts during this time called for reform while 21% opposed it and 32% took neither side.
Gun control has only risen to the top of social media discussion a few times over the last several years, according to PEJ’s New Media Index. But in those cases, gun rights advocates have been as likely as those calling for stricter controls to carry the conversation. Following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling limiting cities’ and states’ ability to prohibit gun ownership, for example, the vast majority of blog posts came from cheering gun rights supporters.
In the case of the Connecticut shooting, it was those calling for reform that had the strongest voice.
“Gun law is just ridiculous, no man, regardless of their history, should be allowed to walk into a shop and purchase an object built to kill,” tweeted @bucketmunt.
The Knowledgeaction blog offered a list of demands to be made, including, “The activation mechanism must be designed to be defeated within an electronic protective fence” and “All schools and other designated areas must have such an electronic fence.”
And from @Neiley83, came “Don’t pray, change your looney gun laws.”
Those that did defend guns rights tended to make the point that more laws would not solve the problem. “You really think a gun regulation bill is going to stop criminals? Hate to break it to you, but they’re not afraid of breaking the law,” tweeted @NicoletFinger.
Expressions of sympathy ranked second on both platforms–25% on Twitter and 20% on blogs. On Twitter, these posts were heavily concentrated on the day of the tragedy with sentiments like “Thoughts and prayers to those involved the shooting that just happened in #Connecticut. Children should never be harmed,” from @JewelsAutomatic.
In contrast to other breaking news events like Superstorm Sandy or the Arab uprisings, the sharing of facts and information proved to be a lesser component of this social media narrative: only 13% of the conversation on Twitter and 10% on blogs, very little of which came from eyewitness accounts. Some of this could be tied to the confusion surrounding details of the event as outlets of all kinds reported inaccuracies.
No other aspects of the event–from President Obama’s public speeches to mental health issues to the assessment of the media’s performance in covering the story–amounted to more than 8% of the conversation on either platform.
The heavy and immediate emphasis on gun laws stands in contrast to the social media conversation following the Tucson and Trayvon Martin shootings. While each of these events had its own tragic elements, the issue of gun control was inherent in all of them. But, the volume and intensity of the discussion in the Newtown case far exceeded that of the Tucson or Martin shootings.
In the three days following the Arizona killing spree, politics filled the social media space. Discussion of the state of political discourse in our country, including its role as a potential catalyst for the shooting, accounted for 34% of the discussion on blogs and twitter combined. Straight facts about the shooting were a close second at 29%. Gun law on the other hand drove a mere 3% of the social media response – the smallest of any of the categories studied.
News of the Trayvon Martin shooting came to the public’s attention differently. While the shooting occurred on February, 26, 2012 it was roughly three weeks later, when the 911 tapes were released, that the story exploded on Twitter. When it did, outrage at the Martin’s alleged killer, George Zimmerman, accounted for 21% of the conversation from March 17-28, 2012, followed by sympathy for the victim at 19%. The issue of gun laws, on the other hand, and specifically Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute which gives citizens the right to use deadly force when they believe they are being threatened, accounted for just 7%. On blogs, the gun issue generated a little more attention, 11%, but was still surpassed by other aspects: namely the role of race in the shooting and outrage at Zimmerman.
Newspaper Opinion Pages
In addition to the social media analysis, PEJ examined the opinion pages in a mix of 11 newspapers of different sizes from across the country ranging from the New York Times to the Orlando Sentinel to the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Here, gun control was an even more dominant element of the conversation about the Newtown massacre than in social media. And nearly all of the gun control opinion pieces called for reform.
Overall, 33 of the 51 op-eds and editorials written about the shooting (65%) focused on the gun law element. And the vast majority of them, 25, advocated for stricter gun control or enforcement. Just four of them defended current gun rights while four others discussed the issue in general rather than taking sides.
The breakdown holds true for op-eds and editorials separately. Looking first at op-eds, which are the signed opinion columns reflecting the views of their authors, 18 of the 31 pieces discussed gun law with calls for reform outnumbering supporters of the status quo by 14-to-3 (One op-ed talked about the issue in neutral terms).
One such call came from the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof who wrote: “We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips–but lawmakers don’t have the gumption to stand up to the National Rifle Association.”
“Really guns don’t kill people,” declared Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. “Apathy does.”
An opposing view came from Larry Pratt, the executive director of the Gun Owners of America, who wrote in USA Today that, “Hopefully, the Connecticut tragedy will be the tipping point after which a rising chorus of Americans will demand elimination of the gun-free zone laws that are in fact criminal-safe zones.”
The other aspects of the tragedy that got some attention in the op-ed columns were sympathy for the victims (four pieces in all), mental health (three in all) and an assessment of the media’s performance (two).
The unsigned editorials, which represent the institutional voice of the papers, concentrated even more on the gun law debate: 15 of the 20 editorials from December 15-18. And when it came to tone, there was a single editorial defending gun rights from the Eagle Tribune of Lawrence, MA on December 16. It stated, “Laws didn’t stop the Newtown school shooter. Such laws never have any effect on those determined to do evil.”
Eleven editorials took the side of reform with statements such as the one in the Traverse City Record-Eagle declaring, “The shootings in Newtown can’t just be another page in America’s long, long history of gun insanity, soon forgotten.” Three of the editorials remained neutral on the question of gun policy.
On the video sharing site YouTube, the school killings dominated the roster of most viewed news videos in the days that followed. From the time of the shooting through Wednesday, Dec. 19th, three of the top six news videos were about the Connecticut shootings – and one video was viewed far more than any other.
The most watched video, seen more than seven million times in the five days following that tragedy, was President Obama’s initial four-minute ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>statement which he delivered from the White House hours after the news had broken.
“They had their entire lives ahead of them,” spoke the President as he fought back tears. “As a country, we have been through this too many times…And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
The next most popular video on the subject, viewed more than 700,000 times, took a much different tone. Radio talk show host ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>Alex Jones, a self-described libertarian, produced a low-tech video of himself talking directly into a camera. Jones accused Obama of faking his tears. Jones also accused the “government-run media” of having declared war on the Second Amendment and said that President Obama was using this tragedy to take people’s guns.
The third video on the subject was an ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>interview from the December 14 edition ABC World News Tonight with Kaitlin Roig, a first grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary school who rushed 15 children into the bathroom in order to protect them.
“There are bad guys out there now, we need to wait for the good guys,” Roig recalled telling the kids.
 Analysis of the social media response to the Tucson shooting combined Twitter and blogs into one measure.