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Public perceptions of the accuracy of gun violence headlines – an interview with Professor Michael Anestis

AOAV spoke to Professor Michael Anestis, Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at Rutgers University, and the executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Centre, about his latest research into gun violence in the US and media perceptions.

AOAV
Can you tell us a little bit about what your most recent research paper is about?

Professor Anestis
Certainly, so we were interested in how people sort of draw conclusions about headlines related to gun violence, there are a lot of misconceptions about what gun violence looks like, what the causes of it are, what the solutions aren’t for, or solutions for it are. And so what we did was we recruited a sample of 3,500, folks across the US matched to census demographics tried to get a large representative sample. And we presented every single person with the same two mock headlines. One said, gun violence is the result of mental health problems. And one said storing firearms in a safe can help prevent suicides. 50% of the folks are randomised so that that first headline was said to be from Fox News, and the second one was from MSNBC, the other 50% got it reversed.

What we basically said is, okay, what predicted how accurate people felt the headlines work? And what it came down to is the only thing at least we looked at the whole sample, the only thing that predicted how accurate that headline ones, was how credible you thought the source was. So if you like MSNBC, what they said, sounds great, if you’d like Fox News, what they said sounds great, regardless of what they said. So it wasn’t that we believe this headline, but only the people only believed it, if it came from Fox News, not really fully dependent on how they felt about that particular outfit. And so there’s some good and bad with that, right? It doesn’t speak well to our critical thinking skills. But it gives a pretty clear sort of way for us to try and combat some of the misconceptions related to gun violence, and quite frankly, other public health phenomena too.

AOAV
Could you give an example of how you can then mobilize your research into real life application?

Professor Anestis
Yeah, absolutely. And so, you know, obviously, the take home message from this was that, you know, no matter how data driven or not data driven, your message is who voices it is going to have a really dramatic impact on how much the idea resonates with the with the audience. And so it tells us, okay, what we need to be doing is mobilizing credible messengers for the communities we’re trying to reach and get them to speak from a data driven perspective. Now, obviously, you can be really pollyannish about that and say, well, I’ll just get, you know, conservative outlet to say something negative about guns, or I’ll get a liberal outlet to say something really positive about guns, that’s not going to happen either way. But the question is, how can you find common ground to get at least what’s being said to be accurate? Even if it isn’t everything you want? Can you help shape the national narrative? By working collaboratively outside of your own bubble, to bring your ideas to a community that’s otherwise not going to get it?

AOAV
And do you think that the debate around gun control and gun violence in the US has been driven by good facts? Or do you think there’s been lots of disinformation in the general debates?

Professor Anestis
So I think it’s a combination of things. So you know, obviously, the more problematic side of things is certainly there is some misinformation, right. So there are folks out there who portrayed themselves as academics, or there are no elected official officials who say things that are just flat out incorrect to support efforts to, you know, block any sort of legislation that would regulate firearm access. Right. So that’s certainly a thing that happens. But I think it gets lost in this and the way this debate gets politicised, and the way that folks don’t listen to each other is that that doesn’t characterise all of it.

The reality is there is a culture of individuals who own firearms in the United States who do believe in safety, who view firearms differently, who don’t see a connection between firearms and theft, or suicide or lethal domestic violence. They don’t see that there. They see this as a tool for home protection and an expression of their liberty and it feels to them like an overreach and that there are different solutions. No firearm owners aren’t wanting people to die. That’s not the idea.

Certainly there are extremists. Sure. But that’s true on every political issue that exists, right. And so, yeah, there’s a misinformation thing. But I think there’s also a culture of folks who simply view this differently. And we’ve communicated with them horribly. And so we’ve created a situation where we can’t speak with each other because we assume an agenda on from one another’s perspective that isn’t necessarily there. And so when I have one on one conversation with the firearm owners, I don’t have a hard time at all, quite frankly, I’m not talking about gun regulation. I’m not an elected official. I have no control over that. I talk about firearm safety and ways to sort of work with in that community to prevent death, which is my an injury, which is my primary concern, I think there isn’t a lot of that going on. And so what you end up with is media outlets speaking to extremes, rather than finding a way to get folks on board with common ground ideas.

AOAV
As part of AOAV’s research into gun violence in the US, we did find that, for instance, a rural family of farmers in Montana had a very different approach to gun safety than, say, an African American family living in one of the projects in Los Angeles: very different view of guns and very different relationships to guns. And one of the challenges is that it seems to be big, broad data, about US gun violence doesn’t really reflect micro experiences: would you say that that is something that you feel is reflective of your work?

Professor Anestis
100%. That that has been an issue and something that worked directly trying to address; we’ve had a series of studies come out and get some more on the way one of them just came out led by one of my graduate students Holly Bond over using something called latent class analysis. And what that does is say, let’s not assume firearm owners are one monolithic group, everyone’s the same, it’s a homogenous thing, we’re just talking about one group of people, that doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense to us for the very reasons you just explained. And, and lo and behold, when we run this type of analysis, in fact, find lots of different communities of firearm owners that differ from one another in meaningful ways. And they want to hear from different folks about firearm safety, and they own different firearms, and they own them for different reasons. And they feel differently about different storage practices than the other groups do.

Right. And so if we have this assumption that firearm owners are this one thing that need this one message from this one group, then we’re missing the whole picture. And that’s in and of itself going to be offensive to firearm owners, who feel misunderstood and unseen and unheard. Because you’re assuming everybody’s the same and they’re not nobody likes to feel that their communities being mischaracterized. And I think that not intentionally, but repeatedly, we have historically had a tendency to gloss over those meaningful differences within those communities, and in our lack of effort to understand who these folks are and what their perspective is, we fail to connect with them.

AOAV
Where do you feel your research sits within the general field of gun violence research? At the moment? How does this project you’ve just completed, complement or add to the sum of knowledge?

Professor Anestis
So I think that there’s come to be a realization in a lot of conversations I’ve had with various groups interested in gun violence prevention, whether that’s the Department of Defense or a variety of civilian entities that a lot of the problem here is communication and messaging. And the reality is that there was a quarter century where there were no federal dollars in the United States for gun violence research. So we’re way behind on all these things. But I think there’s a realization that people can’t just be doing large epidemiological studies to say how many guns two people own and, and things like that they need to better understand how do we communicate with folks?

How do we understand who folks are?

And so I think our research is part of that growing base of scientists trying to understand how to effectively communicate and to get outside of sort of ivory towers in academia. You know, I tell people I last talk I gave was at Fort Hood to Army senior leadership. And I told him, look, I almost named my talk, “It Ain’t Me”, because my voice is not going to convey the seriousness of an issue in a way that’s going to resonate with firearm owners. I lived in Mississippi, South Mississippi for most of my professional career, I’m acutely aware that I’m not the voice for this, right. And so our research is situated and trying to understand – who is that voice? And how can we work with them and actually be effective at this instead of just trying to shout louder than people we disagree with.

Professor Anestis
Is this partly a reflection of the shift in how we consume mediA? That this is shifting into academia? A much more channeled media; a personal media. This means that research itself is reflecting the wider phenomenon of media consumption?

Professor Anestis
I mean, I hope that’s the case. You know, we this particular projects different than what we’ve done before, we haven’t really tried to get down to this level of detail specific outputs and people’s perceptions on them before and I hope that’s the direction folks are going because, like you said, people consume media in different ways. And quite frankly, you could argue that us just looking at these two particular outlets, didn’t really accomplish that task as much as we’d like to because people get their news from all sorts of different sources, right, that those particular choices may not have been enough to sort of reflect the experience and perspective of those folks. It was sort of a first step in that direction. So yeah, I think that we need to get smarter in trying to assess how people are consuming and accessing information, and why they choose that direction and why they might reject other directions. So what then can we do to change the way they think patients being conveyed so that there’s less misinformation or lack of information, filling a gap where we’d rather have data driven thoughts so folks can make their informed healthy choices.

AOAV
What area do you think of gun violence research in the US still needs careful looking at which areas are lacking in information.

Professor Anestis
Man, I know this is gonna be a frustrating answer, but it’s all of them. Because there were no research dollars available. People are way behind, right. So right now, there’s been a decent amount of research and understanding, you know, the epidemiology of gun ownership, how many guns are there, there’s buddy research on things like violence interruption, programs to prevent homicide, you were trying to lead the way with some folks on better understanding firearm suicide prevention. But all of it needs more work, right? We were only in year two or three of any federal dollars being available. we’re way behind. And those dollars are generous, and yet way below what they need to be for us to to address this this way we address other public health issues that quite frankly, cause fewer injuries and lies and yet get more dollars. So I know that’s not the answer you want. I can’t say there’s a single one, they all need more, the ones that are getting attention aren’t getting enough

AOAV
So it’s only been recently that there’s been federal funding available for gun violence research?

Professor Anestis
Yeah. So starting in the early to mid 1990s, there was a thing called the Dickey Amendment that prevented federal research dollars. So things like the CDC or the National Institutes of Health, from funding, or at least was perceived and so treated as such, it prevented them from funding research that was focused specifically on firearms. And when there’s no federal dollars available, that influences where the research agenda goes, right, a lot of academic positions are dependent upon getting external funding. So if there’s just no funding on that position, people are in that spot. People don’t do it. And so yeah, it’s only changed within the past couple of years now that both CDC and NIH, so Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health are offering each summer the vicinity of, of $20 million a year in funding on this, and there are private foundations that fund this. And the Department of Defense is funding work related to gun violence. So there are dollars out there, but that’s a new thing. And so I feel like each year, we’re seeing improvements and meaningful gains and understandings and more people joining. But this is this is at its very preliminary stages.

AOAV
Well, it’s exactly the sort of work that Action on Armed Violence actually does, which is data driven analysis of the drivers of violence. So this is a wonderful thing to to hear that this is happening in the US. Are you optimistic that this research will translate over time into real life interventions and a reduction of levels of gun violence in the US?

Professor Anestis
I am. I think that the realities of gun battles in the US are complicated relative to other nations, because we have more firearms than we have people. And it was true before this past 18 months or so where we’ve had an unprecedented surge in firearm sales, right. So there are millions of excess firearms in circulation. And we would have expected prior to sort of early 2020.

AOAV
By the pandemic?

Professor Anestis
That was fuelled by the pandemic, but also a lot of other issues going along. So it depends on who the firearm owners are, we have data showing that people who became firearm owners first time that was driven a lot by the pandemic, people who are buying more firearms during that time, that was driven by things like supply chain concerns and thoughts that there might be sort of law enforcement breakdowns, they need to keep themselves safe. You know, different folks are buying for different reasons, like you and I were talking about. But the fact that there’s just so many, and that it’s so embedded into aspects of our culture means that the solution isn’t we’re going to ban guns, right?

That’s not to say that the solutions aren’t more nuanced and complicated. But I am optimistic that this work can address that. And the reason I’m optimistic is because I have meetings with folks like Department of Defense, that a year ago would have felt unimaginable, and you have folks who are decision makers who are listening and buying into and interested in this material. And that wasn’t the case before, right. I think you have to be optimistic to do this work. Otherwise, why would you do it? So I’m not I’m not convinced everything we do will result in a subsequent policy that saves lives, but I don’t feel like it’s a fruitless venture.

AOAV
Excellent. Well, Michael, thank you very much for your time, and we really appreciate you sharing your your thoughts with us.

Professor Mike Anestis
Thank you

The full paper by Professor Mike Anestis can be read here.