Guidance: Specifics About Weapons

There has been a lot of great work this week about another disturbing news event; the mass shooting in Orlando. Thank you.

As much as we hope “this is the last one,” we have to think about things we’ve learned in case they come up again.

This brings us to weapons.

Posts after earlier mass shootings have discussed why we need to be very careful when describing them.

We’ve said that:

“Until we have solid information from the authorities, we need to be careful about descriptions of those weapons. Words to avoid unless we are sure of them include: ‘automatic,’ ‘semi-automatic,’ ‘assault’ and ‘assault-style.’ They are often misused.”

We’ve cautioned that:

“To many in the audience, ‘assault rifles’ are fully automatic weapons that cannot be legally purchased. At this point, it’s better to refer to the rifles used in San Bernardino as ‘assault-style.’”

Everyone’s done a good job applying that thinking. Thank you. Here’s what we’re adding to the guidance:

Until there are on-the-record statements from officials in charge of an investigation, or until we have heard from multiple, reliable sources with direct knowledge and the reporting has been vetted with senior editors, do not go into specifics about the types of weapons or their manufacturers. It will often be enough to say, for example, that the gunman had a “rifle and handgun.” As more details come in, “assault-style” may be important to add. Or, perhaps “semi-automatic” if we’re absolutely sure that’s correct.

When we eventually get into specifics, attribution is essential – “said Police Chief John Doe” or “said three law enforcement officials with directly knowledge of the investigation.”

The message here is simple. The details about the weapons will emerge. But in the early hours and perhaps days after a mass shooting, the exact make and model and manufacturer are not at the top of the list of things we need to nail down. And, frankly, if we try to be too precise before all the facts are in, we run the risk of being wrong.

Think of it this way: If the story is that someone with a rifle killed or injured dozens of people in a matter of minutes, it’s clear a powerful weapon that could be rapidly fired was used. Whether it was made by one company or another and exactly which model it was doesn’t immediately change the story or add substantially to the audience’s understanding of what happened.

Again, thanks for the hard work and for applying previous guidance notes.

(“Memmos;” June 17, 2016)

June 17, 2016

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