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Does coverage of Family Research Council shooting show media bias?

February 7, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
National media coverage of last summer's shooting at the Family Research Council shooting in Washington D.C. appears to be slightly biased. The gunman, Floyd Corkins, 28, pleaded guilty yesterday to the shooting, which wounded a security guard. According to a Washington Post story, Corkins pleaded guilty to a federal charge of transporting a firearm and ammunition across state lines and D.C. charges of assault with intent to kill and committing an act of terrorism while armed. Corkins told the judge that he chose the location because it was listed on a map of "anti-gay hate sites" on the Southern Poverty Law Center web site. He had a list of other groups from the website too. CNN reported that Corkins also bought 15 Chick-fil-a sandwiches and planned to rub them in the faces of all the people he planned to kill in the building. He claimed it would be a statement against the policies of the conservative Family Research Council and the people who worked there.

The Southern Poverty Law Center site features a map with different locations helpfully marked with little red dots. The Southern Poverty Law Council considers the Family Research Council a hate group. In media reports last summer, Corkins was described as a volunteer at a community center that serves lesbians, gays and transgender people.

Mollie, a blogger at www.patheos.com, points out today that coverage of the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords and many others initially blamed the shooting on a Tea Party supporter who had been egged on by violent rhetoric from Sarah Palin. At the time, the Atlantic ran a story entitled "Did Sarah Palin's target map play role in Giffords shooting?" The target map in question was apparently a a map of Congressional districts Palin and John McCain won in 2008 but whose Congressmen had voted for health care reform. The "target" map put a set of crosshairs on each of those districts. Palin promoted the map by Tweeting "Don't Retreat, Instead – Reload." At the time there had been a few incidents of violence across the country against Democratic lawmakers. Giffords was one of the lawmakers whose district was listed on that map. Later, it turned out that the shooter Jared Lee Loughner is a schizophrenic and probably wasn't influenced by Palin or her distasteful rhetoric at all, but much of the coverage broadly suggested the heated political rhetoric and specifically Palin's words were contributors.

Mollie said not much attention was paid to the influence of the Southern Poverty Law Center hate group map in the stories about the Family Research Council Shooting, certainly not much in comparison to Sarah Palin's "target map" and its alleged influence on the Giffords shooting. The AP and ABC mentioned the connection at the end of their stories; NBC didn't mention it at all and CNN was the only one to give it fairly prominent mention. No national media interviewed the SPLC about the story. All this, says Mollie, is clear evidence of bias and I would guess she might be right. I think there are several factors in play here: no one was killed in the Family Research Council shooting, unlike several other high profile shootings, so it doesn't rate the intensity of coverage that was given to the recent mass school shooting in Connecticut, for instance, or to the Giffords shooting.

But it is also not insignificant that the potential victims are employees of a conservative lobbying group that opposes gay marriage and school programs that educate children about gays in schools. That is not a position shared by many people in the national media, who tend to be fairly liberal and associate socially with others who share their political viewpoint. It also does not fit the accepted narrative that a left-winger who supports gay and lesbian rights would walk into a building intending to shoot up the place. People who do that are supposed to be right-wing gun nuts. The result is that the national media may have given the bare minimum of coverage to the shooting and have certainly not emphasized the Southern Law and Poverty Center anti-gay hate group map as a contributing factor.

The take away message here for me is that rhetoric on both the left and the right side of the political aisle has the potential to incite violence in mentally disturbed individuals. I would like to see less rhetoric and more nuanced discussion of such issues. More diversity of opinion would also be welcome in the national media.

 
 

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