(STAFFORD, Va.) — In an era where news flashes across screens in the blink of an eye, one sobering fact remains: The United States leads the world in mass shootings. As the conversation pivots toward advocacy journalism, one must ask: Can the pen truly be mightier than the sword—or, in this case, the gun?
In 2015, The New York Times embarked on an editorial series on gun control that attempted to answer this question. The series gained heightened relevance following the San Bernardino mass shooting, prompting then-Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Executive Editor Dean Baquet to take a dramatic step. They decided it was time to shout their collective stance on gun reform from the paper’s metaphorical rooftop—page A1. On Dec. 5, 2015, The New York Times broke a century-long precedent by featuring an editorial on its front page. The compelling 450-word manifesto, “The Gun Epidemic,” was unambiguous in its form of advocacy journalism, urging tighter gun control laws by dissecting a wide range of policy issues.
Navigating the landscape of advocacy journalism amid ethical complexities is no easy feat. Nevertheless, this series adeptly managed to maintain ethical integrity. Beyond political agendas, Americans are individuals who crave safety, whether at church, school, or a company-sponsored holiday gathering. The Times thus raised a pertinent question for readers of all political affiliations: Is there a genuine need for civilians to own military-grade weaponry?
The series acted as a conduit for an American populace desperate for both answers and solutions to the ever-present calamity of mass shootings. The scale of the crisis was staggering. In December 2015 alone, the United States witnessed 355 mass shootings in just 336 days, a statistic that resonated deeply not only within the editorial team of The New York Times but also nationwide.
One particular article in the series, “Tough Talk and a Cowardly Vote on Terrorism,” zeroes in on the Senate’s divisive vote on Dec. 3, 2015. The legislation aimed to enact “common-sense” controls, such as barring those on the no-fly list from buying firearms and bolstering background checks for all gun purchasers. The Times lambasted legislators who opposed the bill, arguing that they placed the gun lobby’s interests over public safety. This direct challenge to policymakers encapsulates the essence of advocacy journalism. While the article technically falls under the category of an op-ed, its persuasive agenda aligns it with advocacy journalism.
The 2015 New York Times editorial series on gun control serves as a case study for the potential reach and impact of advocacy journalism. It also brings to light the compelling question of whether words, however powerfully composed, can effect tangible change in a society entangled in a perpetual cycle of violence.