"The massacre of so many innocent children has changed… has changed America. We've never seen this happen," said US Senator Joe Manchin, member of the NRA, on national television last December (Timm, 2012). Three days prior, on December 14, 2012, a 20-year old gunman had fatally shot 20 Sandy Hook Elementary School students, six staff members and his own mother in Newtown, Connecticut, using a semiautomatic Bushmaster assault rifle. The shooting provoked public outcry across the United States, especially from anti-gun activist groups, and “reignited a national debate over gun control” (The New York Times, n.d.). A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre found that, for the first time in over five years, the majority of Americans favored stricter gun control regulations (44 percent pro, 32 percent against). More than half of Americans (52 percent) agreed that the incident had made them more supportive of gun control (LoGiurato, 2013).
Clearly, the public reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting meant that trouble was on the horizon for the US gun industry, and the organization that represents it. The National Rifle Association of America (NRA), a nonprofit organization in the United States, has historically promoted firearm ownership, marksmanship, safety, hunting, and self- defense. More recently, however, it has taken up a major role as a lobbying organization, defending the right to bear arms. The NRA is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners, and registration of firearms. Members of Congress continuously rank the NRA as one of the most powerful lobbying organization in the United States (National Rifle Association, 2013).
This paper examines the role that the Sandy Hook massacre played in changing Americans’ perceptions of firearms regulation. It investigates the symbolism employed by key media outlets in their reporting to date, and how it impacted this perception. The paper also investigates the crisis response of the NRA and analyses message strategies that the organization used to counteract the dwindling public approval of current gun control legislation.
This part examines the crisis communication literature and briefly explains two prominent theoretical approaches to understanding a crisis communication event. In closing, the research questions are presented.
Approaching Crisis Situations
According to Fishman (1999), there has been continuous struggle within the crisis communication literature as to what types of events actually constitute a ‘crisis’. Fishman states that in common language, the term ‘crisis’ has been used synonymously to mean anything from ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’ to ‘accident’ without any effort to demarcate the severity of a particular problem. In the field of crisis communication, however, the term must be used in more restrictive terms. The crisis communication literature offers several definitions: Fearn-Banks (1996) defines a crisis as "a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting an organization, company, or industry, as well as its publics, products, or good name" (p. 1). Barton (1993) views a crisis as a situation determined by three conditions: (1) it involves an unpredictable event, (2) a threat to essential values, and (3) it demands a timely response. Barton notes that the level of urgency placed upon crisis response is often dependent on the extent of media coverage it receives.
Fishman (1999) builds on Barton’s view, emphasizing that a crisis is characterized by a threat to important values. This, according to Fishman, is what differentiates a crisis from a minor disruption, or nuisance. A crisis can call into question the core mission of an organization. Fishman adds that a crisis situation generally “involves a dynamic or multi- dimensional set of relationships within a rapidly-changing environment” (p.348). This is to say that while effective communication is important to maintaining a positive relationship with key stakeholders, each of these stakeholders aims to maximize their own welfare at the same time. Thus, an organization might be forced to make trade-offs to satisfy prioritized interests at the expense of certain stakeholder groups.
As stated by Fishman (1999), three major theoretical approaches have evolved to analyze crisis communication situations: (1) stage analysis; (2) strategies analysis; and (3) the focusing events perspective. These approaches were conceived independently. Fishman, however, believes that they are best employed in synthesis. He states that “a blended methodological orientation (…) provides a superior methodology for analyzing a complex crisis event rather than relying upon any one theory in isolation from the others” (p.346). In the following I will briefly summarize the key ideas pertaining to two of these approaches, namely strategies analysis (or image restoration theory) as proposed by Benoit (1997), and Birkland’s focusing events perspective, for I intend to draw on both theories in my analysis of the case at hand.
Focusing Events Perspective
Birkland’s (1998) focusing events perspective stresses the importance of crisis events for agenda-setting and suggests that crises often bring with them important implications for public policy. Birkland calls these events ‘focusing events’.
A focusing event is an event that is sudden; relatively uncommon; can be reasonably defined as harmful or revealing the possibility of potentially greater future harms; has harms that are concentrated in a particular geographical area or community of interest; and that is known to policy makers and the public simultaneously (p.54).
Birkland contends that focusing events play a vital role in stimulating public-policy discussions. He contends that they serve as an impulse for bringing important, often previously dormant, issues to the public's attention and frequently help creating acceptance for these issues in the public-policy arena. While a focusing event thus does not automatically lead to a policy adjustment, it centers attention for the necessary amount of time to open a ‘window of opportunity’ in which new legislation can be passed.
Birkland (1998) distinguishes between two main types of focusing events: Type One focusing events include ‘normal’ crises such as natural disasters, which are subject to a certain amount of predictability; Type Two events are novel crises, meaning events that have never happened before. The events of September 11, 2001, would serve as a good example of such ‘new’ focusing events. The key methodological tools employed in a focusing events study are symbols, which, according to Brikland, represent a major form of persuasion in collective decision-making. Birkland argues that the symbolic representation of a crisis event grounds a crucial part of the political reasoning employed to justify a decision or policy outcome. Fishman (1999) confirms that novel crises generally “open a symbolic arena where various groups struggle about the interpretation and construction of social reality” (p.354). Fundamental to the focusing events approach is thus the scrutiny of symbolic representations in the media coverage of a crisis situation.
Image Restoration Theory
Benoit’s image restoration theory (1997), or strategies analysis, asserts that an organization’s image is under threat when the organization is believed to be responsible for an offensive act. Notice the word believed. Benoit emphasizes that in assessing an impending crisis, public perception trumps reality. That is to say, it does not matter whether an organization is actually responsible for the offense or not, what matters is whether it is believed to be responsible. Similarly, it does not matter, if the committed act is actually offensive – it matters whether a relevant audience perceives it as such. Benoit remarks that responsibility comes in many forms, i.e. an organization can be blamed for acts that it “performed, ordered, encouraged, facilitated, or permitted to occur” (1997, p.178). This clarification is important, for the NRA’s reaction to the Newtown shooting does not lend itself easily to Benoit’s typology. After all, the majority of observers did not accuse the NRA of being directly responsible for the Newtown massacre (suggesting, for example, that it ordered an armed assassin into Sandy Hook Elementary School). However, it is reasonable to assume that a large audience perceived the NRA to be guilty of facilitating such acts by promoting firearms and lobbying against tighter gun control. This does put its image in jeopardy. Furthermore, the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School threaten the image of firearms and that of firearm owners in general. Consequently, it is likely that the NRA would undertake measures to counteract this trend using image restoration techniques.
Benoit (1997) argues that there are five general message options to counteract the effects of a crisis. These are: denial, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, corrective action, and mortification. Denial has two subcategories: an organization can use plain denial to distance itself from the offense or it can attempt to shift the blame to another party. It can also attempt to evade responsibility by pleading that the offensive act was an equitable response to provocation; that the offense occurred due to a lack of information or power; that it was merely an accident; or that the act went awry, but was committed with good intentions. A third strategy is to reduce offensiveness. This can be done by attempting to bolster one’s image to improve the audience’s positive affect for the organization, and hoping that this will compensate for negative sentiment resulting from the wrongful act. The organization can also try to minimize the effects of the offense, i.e. claim that they are less severe than they appear. Corrective action promises to repair the damage caused and prevent its recurrence. Mortification accepts responsibility for the offense and asks forgiveness. For a comprehensive overview of the image repair options, consult Appendix A.
The purpose of this case study is to examine the crisis surrounding the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Following Fishman (1999), the analysis integrates multiple theoretical approaches, namely Birkland’s focusing events perspective (1998) and image restoration theory as developed by Benoit (1997). It addresses two main research questions:
RQ1: What was the predominant symbolism present in media coverage of the crisis?
RQ2: What message strategies did the NRA employ to counteract the crisis?
This study employs the method of rhetorical criticism. Rhetorical criticism is particularly useful to understand how people “use symbols to influence one another” (Campbell & Burkholder, 1997). According to Andrews, Leff, & Terrill (1998), it is the “systematic process of illuminating and evaluating” persuasive messages. It reaches deeper than content analysis, in that it inspects messages in context. This allows the rhetorical critic to judge the significance of message elements in a way that considers not only simple frequency but also salience as designated by placement, development, and relationship of ideas in the persuasive messages.
The texts were acquired from three sources: (1) The NRA website was a vital repository of official news releases. (2) The web database Factiva was used to retrieve news stories discussing the Newtown shooting, using the search term ‘Sandy Hook Elementary’. For matters of feasibility, only news items published in the print editions two of the most prominent American newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, were considered for rhetorical analysis. The time period was set from 14.12.2012, the day of the shooting, until 21.12.2012, including the first week of coverage. This returned 63 unique results, of which a convenience sample of n=20 was subjected to close examination. An overview of these articles can be found in Appendix B. The selection was made based on a judgment of the story headings’ apparent relevance. Articles were read multiple times with special attention paid to the symbolism employed. NRA materials were studied with special focus on image restoration techniques.
The following part applies elements of Benoit’s image restoration strategies (1997) and Birkland’s focusing events perspective (1998) to the crisis situation.
Symbolism in Media Coverage
An exploratory search of the terms ‘gun control’, ‘Sandy Hook’, ‘Newtown’, and ‘National Rifle Association’ returned a total of 2,678 unique news stories published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN alone, within five weeks after the massacre. (Note that this figure includes online items.) This allows one to gauge the prominence the event demanded on the national media agenda. By comparison, the same keywords bring up only 81 stories published during the five weeks preceding the event. But as pointed out by Birkland (1998) it is not the amount of media coverage alone that turns a crisis into a novel focusing event. Mass shootings almost inevitably become extensively distributed news stories. The quality of the media coverage plays an important role, especially the dominant symbolism employed in reporting. This is where the Sandy Hook massacre clearly trumps all other instances of mass shootings or killing sprees in the recent history of the United States. The fact that the shooting was targeted at first graders instantly made it one of the most shocking massacres in US history; the faces of innocent first graders aged 6 and 7 murdered in cold blood, weigh heavy on the collective American soul.
Children: The Defenseless. “First graders think their teachers know everything and love their parents unconditionally”, says an article called ‘25 Lessons about First Graders’, featured in the New York Times in the wake of the shooting (Winerip, 2012). The article directly puts the innocence of little children in context with the horrific events in Newtown. While previous shootings targeted adults, the events in Newtown involved the weakest members of American society – elementary school children. All news items clearly identify the victims as children, occasionally referring to them as ‘little ones’ or even ‘babies’. A few articles cite President Obama, who referred to the victims as ''beautiful little kids'', stating that, "They had their entire lives ahead of them – birthday, weddings, kids of their own".
In the majority of cases, the authors described the children’s panic, their screaming and crying. This is further reflected in much of the accompanying imagery. In most cases, the associated pictures are even stronger than the words of a story. Nearly all articles feature imagery related to children. Some are accompanied by headshots of the young victims, or the grieving families of the victims including young siblings; others show the surviving children with frightened faces.
The Primary School: From Save Haven to Terror Scene. “'It's sick that something like this could happen at an elementary school.” When parents send their children off to primary school in the morning, they assume they spend the day in safe hands. The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting challenged this sense of security. The New York Times articles titled “The Nation Heads Back to School With New Worries About Safety” (Motoko, 2012), and “There's Been a Shooting: Running and Hoping to Find a Child Safe” (Dwyer, 2012) point out how deeply shaken Americans are about the fact that an elementary school became the site of a massacre. In yet another article, The New York Times observes that the incident turned “a place where children were supposed to be safe into a national symbol of heartbreak and horror” (Barron, 2012).
Assault Weapons: Bringing War to Our Doorstep. About half of the articles under scrutiny make mention of the type of weapon used to commit the shooting, a .223 semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle, and discuss its deadly specifications such as its fast shooting ability and high-capacity magazine. Many articles note the fact the attacker used such gun to shoot the children multiple times at close range. The New York Times describes the rifle as “similar to weapons used by troops in Afghanistan” (Flegenheimer, 2012). It insinuates that this is a weapon for use in conflict areas, not for ‘home use’. Another news story explicitly states, “these guns are made and designed for war”; or: they are a “logical choice for anyone whose goal is to kill a lot of people in a short time because of their ability to rapidly fire multiple high-velocity rounds” (Goode, 2012). US Senator Manchin is quoted, “I don’t know anyone who uses assault rifles for hunting”, suggesting that these weapons are made for killing, not for sports. In the media coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, assault weapons are thus strongly associated with death and terror, not with sportsmanship or self- defense.
A Novel Focusing Event
When West Virginia Senator Manchin stated that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre had ‘changed America’ (see p.1), this could be considered a bloomy exaggeration. But the underlying assumption, namely that the shooting represents a novel focusing event, is dead accurate. While, unfortunately, mass shootings are nothing new in recent US history, and neither are school shootings, one aspect of the incident was entirely unknown to the American public: the fact that it targeted children under the age of ten. This lifted the crisis event from the status of a ‘normal’ (Type One) focusing event to that of a ‘new’ (Type Two) focusing event.
Focusing events can lead interest groups, government leaders, policy entrepreneurs, the news media, or members of the public to identify new problems, or to pay greater attention to existing but dormant problems, potentially leading to a search for solutions in the wake of apparent policy failure (Birkland, 1998, p.55).
In an emotional statement about the shooting in Newtown, US President Barack Obama signaled he would push for stricter gun regulations: ''We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,'' he said, and promised to ''use whatever power this office holds'' (Landler, 2012). Within a week, the White House announced its support for several gun-control measures, including background checks of gun buyers, a renewal of the expired ban on assault weapons, and a possible ban of high-capacity ammunition magazines. The New York Times reported “rapidly shifting attitudes toward gun control in the aftermath of a massacre in a Connecticut school”. It seemed that even a number of gun rights supporters signaled openness to new restrictions in the wake of this Type Two focusing event.
In any case, the Sandy Hook shooting attracted enormous media attention to the previously dormant issue of gun control. In fact, it dominated the media coverage so strongly that it could impossibly be ignored by an attentive public. When searching for the term ‘gun control’ in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Factiva returned 56 unique results published during the five weeks before and 1,536 unique results published during the five weeks after the incident. (These figures include online sources.) Interest in the issue thus increased roughly 27-fold. In addition, critical views towards the NRA grew louder. During the first seven days after the shooting, the New York Times (print edition) published three rather critical articles on the National Rifle Association. For example, a story titled “National Rifle (Selling) Association” asserted that the organization puts the gun industry’s profit motives before children’s safety and suggests that it “serve(s) no purpose other than to increase the sales of guns and bullets” (National Rifle Selling Association, 2012).
The NRA’s Crisis Response Strategy
In the following, I will examine how the NRA responded to the government’s ideas on stricter gun control, the increasingly unfavorable framing of the gun control debate in the media, and dwindling public approval ratings.
Silence is Golden? The first step in the NRA’s crisis response can be summarized as plain and abounding silence. From the moment the shooting took place on Friday, December 14, 2012, until Tuesday afternoon, December 18, 2012, the NRA did not post anything on its website. In the social media sphere the organization’s silence was heard even louder: roughly 10 hours after the shootings the NRA chose to deactivate its Facebook Page; it remained invisible for four days (Constine, 2012). The organization’s Twitter account, which typically posts several times a day, also remained quiet during the same period. In a statement provided to CNN on the day of the shooting, an NRA spokesman said only, "Until the facts are thoroughly known, NRA will not have any comment" (Boyette, 2012). The self-prescribed silence lasted until Tuesday afternoon, December 18, 2012, four days after the shooting. When the silence was broken, the NRA employed two main image restoration techniques.
Corrective Action. As pointed out by Benoit (1997), corrective action entails promises to correct a problem. This is precisely what the NRA did in its first release following the shooting. On Tuesday, December 18, 2012, the NRA issued a statement on its website, saying that it was "shocked, saddened and heartbroken" by the Newtown shootings. The NRA stated it was prepared "to help make sure this never happens again," and announced a press conference for the following Friday, December 21, 2012. The statement also justified the previous silence: “Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting” (NRA Statement, 2012). On Friday, December 21, 2012, precisely one week after the shooting, the NRA held a press conference to present its views on the crisis, and their proposed plan for corrective action. Surprisingly, this plan entailed more guns in schools, not less, for the NRA believes that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” (NRA Press Conference, 2012).
As parents, we do everything we can to keep our children safe. It is now time for us to assume responsibility for their safety at school. The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection (NRA Press Conference, 2012).
This investment in protection, according to the NRA, thus equals further investment in armed security.
Denial. A major component of the NRA’s message strategy was denial of the fact that the availability of guns or the absence of gun control measures should carried any blame in the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This becomes evident in large parts of the NRA’s statement concerning the Newtown tragedy, in which it attempts to shift the blame to politicians (a), the media (c), and the mentally ill (b) – in somewhat dubious rhetoric. Consider the following excerpts of the NRA’s Executive Director’s speech at the press conference on December 21:
(a) “[F]ace up to the truth. Politicians pass laws for Gun-Free School Zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”
(b) “The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day.”
(c) “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse (…) And then they have the nerve to call it entertainment (NRA Press Conference, 2012).”
The Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting is a prime example of Birkland’s (1998) Type Two (or ‘novel’) focusing event. A sudden wave of media coverage contrasting, in words and vivid images, the total innocence of America’s weakest citizens – its first graders, children aged 6 and 7 – with the destructive power of the deadliest firearms on the consumer market – i.e. a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle – challenged deep-rooted American values. Does the Second Amendment, the freedom to bear arms, include the right to own military grade weaponry? And what is the price of that freedom? The dominant view propagated in the media seems to be that the safety of children must not be an answer to this question. This view is put forward with the use of strong symbolism: children’s innocence, the deadly force of automatic weapons, and the primary school’s (lost) status as a sanctuary. This dominant interpretation of the crisis in the media shifted the balance of debate in favor of gun control advocates, because it provided testimony of the fact that current regulations have, to some degree, failed.
Birkland (1998) states, that focusing events often exert pressure on policy makers to accept change. President Obama’s actions in the first month after the shooting certainly give proof that this is true in the case at hand. On January 16, 2013, only about a month after the events took place, the US president signed 23 executive orders on gun safety, effective immediately (Ungar, 2013). Further policy changes are in the pipeline. Naturally, these developments are much to the disdain of the NRA. Almost all of the enacted or proposed changes are detrimental to its interests. But despite the outward success of the pro-change groups, it is difficult to judge the success of the NRA’s defensive measures, or the lack thereof. As the situation is still ongoing, it remains to be seen whether real, effective measures will eventually be passed by Congress or not. In the process, it is likely that the NRA will continue to downplay the event’s significance for the gun control debate by providing alternative explanations for why it took place. The NRA still has considerable political power, which will only increase as the Sandy Hook massacre wanes from the media agenda, and eventually from public consciousness. When evaluating the NRA’s crisis response, there are, however, a couple of weak spots I would like to discuss.
Why did the NRA remain silent for so long? In my opinion, this was not a good idea. I cannot think of a crisis communication handbook that advises organizations to not respond to a crisis. I would expect an organization that advocates the usage of weaponry to show better crisis management. It seems to me that the NRA, which undoubtedly has experience with gun-related crises, thought that after the many mass shootings in recent US history it could not get any worse. However, the above analysis showed that it can. It seems to me that the NRA was not prepared for a ‘novel’ focusing event. In my opinion, the fact that they simply deactivated their Facebook page showed two things. (1) The NRA is not interested in dialogue: the apparent fear of a ‘shitstorm’ coming its way almost equals an admission of guilt. If guns were not the problem, then why shy away from confrontation? (2) The NRA values profit over people. Political strategy seems to have gotten in the way of at least taking a human stance and condemning the events, as any sane human being would. But for whatever reason, the NRA kept quiet. In my opinion, this validates the New York Times’ allegations that the NRA is an organization that works in the interests of the industry, rather than the people (see p.8).
As pointed out earlier, crisis situations often force organizations to prioritize certain stakeholder groups over others (Fishman, 1999). This is such a case. Clearly the NRA was more focused on evading liability, i.e. fight the association of guns with the crisis at hand, than on communicating with its members, or the general public. The NRA’s proposed course of ‘corrective action’ only intensifies this notion: fighting gun violence with more gun violence is likely not what people expected when the NRA assured the public it was willing to co-operate in assuring such tragedy would not happen again. This blatant pro-industry proposition exposes the NRA’s proposition as insincere marketing stunt. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the public approval rating of the NRA dropped by about ten points after the press conference (LoGiurato, 2013).
At the time of this writing, the crisis is not yet over. Only last week has the NRA released a harsh video campaigning for armed guards in America’s schools. The copy reads:
Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school? Mr. Obama demands the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but he’s just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security (Rucker, 2013).
Calling the President an “elitist hypocrite” shows that the NRA is not afraid of unforgiving political battles. It will take time before the effects of the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting on American society and legislation become fully visible. To examine this crisis in more detail, especially the post crisis stage which is currently unfolding, can be the topic of further research.