In previous articles, I’ve discussed the bias against guns and armed self defense that is prevalent in the news media. A recent case from Chicago, in which an elderly woman used her handgun in self defense and was then smeared by the local media, highlights this problem:
The self defense shooting
68 year old Margaret Matthews, a widowed grandmother who lives alone on Chicago’s South side, had been repeatedly harassed by two 12 and 13 year old boys in her neighborhood for the last year, according to news reports. The alleged harassment included destruction of her property by fire, repeated trespassing, etc. The boys returned to harass her again near the end of September, this time throwing bricks through her windows, according to Ms. Matthews and neighbors. She promptly called police, but no response was forthcoming, at which point the boys returned about an hour later, throwing more bricks, including one which hit the elderly woman in the chest, according to news reports. At this point she feared for her safety and fired what she intended to be a warning shot, which struck one of her attackers in the arm, police say. Ms. Matthews was taken into custody by police, and eventually released without charges, while the two boys were charged with misdemeanor aggravated assault to a senior citizen, according to news reports.
The news headlines
The Chicago Sun-Times ran a story entitled “Woman, 68, shoots boy who broke window, police say.” While the story itself sets out a reasonably fair representation of the facts, the headline suggests that the elderly woman shot the boy to punish him because he broke her window, rather than in self defense to stop him from throwing more potentially-lethal bricks at her chest.
The Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper, picked up the story and ran the headline “Chicago grandma unapologetic after shooting 12-year-old boy.” This story too laid out a fair representation of the facts, yet its headline suggests that the woman should be apologetic, and is misleading as to which party is at fault.
The Chicago Sun-Times also ran another story, this time entitled “Boy, 12, charged with assault after he was shot by woman, 68.” Once more we have a factually accurate story, but a headline that leaves the reader sympathetic for the boy and wondering why the police and prosecutors are persecuting him.
In a perfect world, everyone would read and understand news stories in their entirety, negating any potential consequences from misleading headlines. However, we don’t live in that perfect world. Instead, people often skim headlines and forgo the article all together, basing their opinions on just the headline. This can be the result of intentional skimming to save time, or unintentional skimming as one walks past a newspaper stand and has time to only read the headlines. The result is that a misleading headline can be read, internalized, and passed on to others, while the more-accurate article contents go unread. When the article in question is about an issue of minor important (such as the outcome of a pre-season sporting event), the harm is minor to non-existent. But when the article addresses something as important as guns and self defense, the harm can be drastic. I wonder how many Chicago residents who are anti-gun would hold that viewpoint if they weren’t perpetually exposed to anti gun propaganda, while being shielded from the reports of successful armed self defense that occur daily.