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High Resolution File Formats for Full Chart and Blank Versions of News Quality Chart

A few people have asked me to post links to various file formats of this chart for their own use. Feel free to download and use them. There is a Creative Commons license on them which requests attribution and non-commercial use. They contain minor updates from recent versions. Most notably, The Economist has been moved to the left. I agree with commentators who pointed out that was an erroneous initial placement. Also, I changed the snarky designation “Basic AF” to “Basic” so that the chart’s use would be more appropriate in middle school and/or high school settings.  (Note: the abbreviation “AF” stands for “as fuck,” which is text/internet slang for “very,” or “quite.” Sorry for any classroom snickers this may have caused for unsuspecting teachers.)

 

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News Quality.V5

 

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The Reasoning and Methodology Behind The Chart

 

tl;dr: There are lots of reasons. Many are subjective. More data would make it better. I am not a media expert.

Since my News Quality graphic got widely shared, I have been asked what my inspiration, methodology, and process was for creating it. I note that I have been asked this question by academics, journalists, and laypersons that care about accuracy and quality. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t care about accuracy and quality. And a lot of those same people don’t like to read.

Why I Created It

I am frustrated by the reality that people don’t like to read. I LOVE to read and write. I have an English degree and a law degree, and I read and write every day for work. As a hobby, I read the great articles that are out there on the topic of media bias and accuracy. All of you who are reading this know that there is an abundance of great journalism out there—truly more than ever. I have the pleasure and privilege of reading a lot of this stuff, as do you.

But I know that the medium of a well-written article just doesn’t reach people who don’t read long things. In this post, I refer to such people as “non-readers” or “infrequent readers.” I am fully aware that the website MediaBiasFactCheck, and the organization Pew Research, and media research departments at many universities have large sets of empirical data available to review, and that those sources are more reputable than *just me*. But non/infrequent readers don’t read those sources. What do they read? Memes, which are often just two juxtaposed pictures with a pithy, terrible, one-sentence argument placed on top in large white letters. Tweets in which arguments are limited to 140 characters. They also prefer to watch videos, like YouTube “documentaries,” no matter how deceptively edited or spun.

Memes and tweets and YouTube videos spread quickly. They don’t take any effort to read, and people are convinced by them. They base their viewpoints upon them IN PLACE of basing their opinions upon long written pieces. To the extent that infrequent readers read, they prefer short articles that confirm their biases. Because they read very little, their comprehension skills and ability to distinguish good writing from bad writing is low. This is true for infrequent readers across the political spectrum. All of this is extremely disturbing to me.

Many non/infrequent-readers prefer easily digestible, visual information. I wanted to take the landscape of news sources that I was highly familiar with and put it into an easily digestible, visual format. I wanted it to be easily shareable, and more substantive than a meme, but less substantive than an article. I cite the fact that it has been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook (that I know of) and viewed 3 million times on Imgur as evidence that I accomplished the goal of it being shareable. In contrast, maybe one-one millionth the amount of people will read this boring-ass article about my methodology behind it.

Many non/infrequent readers are quite bad at distinguishing between decent news sources and terrible news sources. I wanted to make this chart in the hopes that if non/infrequent readers saw it, they could use it to avoid trash. For those of you who can discern between the partisan leanings of The Economist and the Wall Street Journal, I have to say this chart was not primarily made for your benefit. You are already good at reading and distinguishing news sources.

The fact that the chart is shareable does not necessarily make it TRUE. Having heard feedback from all corners of the internet, I know that many people disagree with my placements of news sources upon it. However, even people who disagree with the placements find the taxonomy helpful, because it provides a baseline for a discussion about media sources, which are inherently difficult to classify. Often, verbal and written discussions about news sources are limited to descriptions of sources as “good” and “bad,”  and “biased” and “unbiased.” This chart allows for a few more dimensions to the conversation. However, as discussed below, there are many metrics on which to evaluate and classify media, and this chart doesn’t include them all.

In creating the chart, I had to make (mostly) subjective decisions regarding four particular aspects, explained below.

Choosing the Vertical Categories

First, I considered what makes a news source generally “high quality” or “low quality.” “Quality” itself is an incredibly subjective metric. I figured a good middle category to start with would be journalism that regularly meets recognized ethics standards the profession, such as those set by the Society of Professional Journalists. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. Above and beyond that, I determined that factors that can make a particular article or broadcast “higher quality” include 1) a high level of detail, 2) the presence of analysis, and 3) a discussion of implications and/or complexity. So I created the categories of “Analytical” for sources that have 1) detail and 2) analysis, and “Complex” for sources that regularly have the discussions of 3) implications and/or complexity. To read the “Complex” and “Analytical” sources, you often have to be familiar with facts learned from sources ranked lower on the vertical axis. However, complexity is not always a good thing. Sometimes, real issues get obscured with complex writing.

Then, I considered what makes a news source “lower quality.” One of the factors is simplicity. Simplicity CAN lead to “low quality” if a deep issue is only covered at a very surface level. Simplicity is fine for stories like “a man robbed a liquor store,” but it’s often bad for, say, coverage of a complex bill being considered by your state legislature. There are sources that cover complex stories (e.g, Hillary e-mail stories, Trump foundation stories, and really, most political stories) in a VERY simple format, and I think that decreases civic literacy. Therefore, I created a below-average quality category called “Basic AF.” However, simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need “just the story.”

I have strong feelings about what factors really lower the quality of a source, and those are 1) sensationalism and 2) self-promotion in the form of “clickbait” headlines. Sources that engage in these actions are often geared toward attracting the attention of the non/infrequent reader. Sensationalism plays upon the worst emotions in us, such as fear and anger. Clickbait online articles have headlines that are rife with hyperbole. Then, the content of the articles themselves are loaded with adjectives (e.g., “clearly,” “obviously,” “desperately,” “amazing,” “terrific”) that are hallmarks of poor persuasive writing. That category definitely went at the bottom.

Few people quibble with the vertical categories as I have selected them, but as stated above, “complex” is not necessarily good and “basic” is not necessarily bad. Therefore, the “journalistic quality” arrow does not correlate perfectly with the vertical categories, and as a result, I myself find it to be an imperfect way to rank journalistic quality. However, they correlate enough that the ranking still makes sense, minus a few outliers. In particular, USA Today and CNN get pretty harsh vertical rankings due to my categories. I think USA Today is a pretty high quality publication, even though most of its stories are basic.

Note that the vertical categories do not take into consideration the presence of “truth” in a source. For example, the Wall Street Journal near the top, and CNN near the bottom, both generally report on things that are “true.” The vertical categories also do not differentiate between whether sources are more fact or opinion based. For example, both The National Review (near the top) and The Blaze (at the bottom) write very opinionated pieces.

 

Choosing the Horizontal Categories

Sorting sources based on partisan bias was a bit more straightforward, but I wanted to differentiate between the level of partisan bias. The categories are fairly self-explanatory. They are also the most highly debatable. Good arguments can be made as to whether a source is minimally partisan, “skews” partisan, or is “hyper” partisan. The “Utter Garbage/Conspiracy Theories” category is for those sources that “report” things that are demonstrably false and for which no apology or retraction is issued in the wake of publishing such a false story. These stories may include, for example, how the Obamas’ children were stolen from another family (on the right), or that the government is purposely poisoning us and changing the weather with chemtrails from airplanes (on the left). For the most part, even the “hyper-partisan” sites try to base their stories on truth (e.g., Occupy Democrats, Red State), and are held to account if they publish something demonstrably false. Generally, the closer a source is to the middle on this chart, the more they are taken to task by their peers for publishing or reporting something false.

The categorization of a source in the hyper-partisan or even utter garbage category does not mean that every story published there is false. Many articles may just be very opinionated versions of the truth, or half-truths. And occasionally, sometimes a hyper-partisan or garbage site will stumble upon an actual scoop, due to their willingness to publish stories that haven’t been sourced or verified. Their classification in these categories is mainly because they are widely recognized by other journalists as regularly falling short of standard journalism ethics and practices.

Lots of people have a problem with the category of “mainstream/minimally partisan.” To clarify, the category is called “minimally partisan,” not “non-partisan.” Because journalists are human people, they have opinions, and these opinions can make their way into their reporting. However, they also have professional standards and are held to account by their peers. Further, one can police one’s own biases to a certain extent if one is cognizant of them. The difference between “minimally partisan” and “skews partisan” is easily distinguishable by the intent of the organization. If they mean to be objective, that counts as minimally partisan here. If they mean to present a progressive point of view (MSNBC), or mean to present a conservative point of view (FOX News) that’s at least skewing partisan.

Choosing the News Sources to Include

The sources I initially chose include those I read most often and those I am exposed to most often through aggregators or other sources. They also include sources which I have reason to believe many others are exposed to most often. For people who get their news on the internet, their default browser home page is often a starting point for where to find news, and these home pages are often news aggregators. Yahoo, MSN, and the Microsoft Windows Edge Browser home page all present particular news sources. Many people also get their news sources from Facebook and Twitter (an alarming number, 40%, as I have seen in a recent survey, ONLY get their news from Facebook). Another aggregator is the Apple News App. Between these sources, I selected some of the most popular, making sure to include some in each category, and an approximately equal number of left and right partisan sources.

Note that I did not quantitatively determine how many sites are out there on each partisan side. Some people object to this and believe there are far more trash websites on one side or the other. I do not have the time or resources to conduct such a quantitative measure, so I did not conduct one. Some believe that because this measure is omitted, I am promoting a false equivalency between the sides. This may be true, if there is truly one partisan side that has significantly more garbage news sources. However, I believe there is value in presenting partisan balance within the chart so that more people across the spectrum are willing to take it seriously.

Many sources are not on here. That’s because there are hundreds of them. I could add twice as many easily, but then it would lose its readability. Remember, some people don’t like to read. For many, the words on the chart were too much.

 

Factors for Placing the News Sources on the Chart

I could have taken a number of empirical and quantitative approaches, but as stated earlier, but I did not set out to first conduct such a wide ranging study and then publish the results thereof. I just wanted to visually present a concept that many of us already hold in our heads. I am not affiliated with any research organizations that do this kind of work. I was actually very surprised that this chart was so widely shared, because  I am not an authority on this subject, and literally nothing I have ever written or drawn has attracted so much attention and scrutiny.

I am, however, experienced in defending my positions with facts and arguments, and I place value on the notion that assertions must be supported. I have outlined my support for these placements below.

One way to analyze sets of complex facts  is the approach used in our courts. There are some legal questions to which our courts have determined the best way to answer is through a multi-factor test. These multi-factor tests are appropriate for factual scenarios where there are many considerations to weigh. For example, in trademark law, to determine whether consumers are likely to be confused by competing trademarks, there is a 13- factor test. In patent law, to determine a reasonable amount of royalties to be paid for patent infringement, there is a 15-factor test. As a lawyer, I am comfortable with this multi-factor test approach, so I created one and applied it.

Given the popularity of this chart, though, I think it would be valuable to take my taxonomy and multi-factor test for placement and use it as a starting point for an actual study. A good empirical, data-driven study would probably look like a large panel of well-regarded journalists, writers, academics, and media observers poring over voluminous amounts of writing, spanning tens of thousands of articles and at least thousands of individual news sources, with the help of research assistants. It would probably use software to count and categorize words used in these articles and require cross-checking for verification of facts. As noted below in my list of factors, some just require a yes or no answer, but some are truly measurable and quantifiable. For each of the factors that are quantifiable here, I note that in my own evaluation, I only quantified these factors very generally, based on my observation and reading of headlines and articles. That is, I did not precisely count everything that could be measured. A real study could precisely quantify each of these factors, which would result in more precise placement of news sources. However, even in a quantitative study, certain aspects to placement will still be subjective; namely, the weight given to a particular factor in determining the ultimate ranking. It appears that any high-quality study of media sources requires both subjective and objective aspects, given that it is an analysis of written and spoken words.

Here are the factors I considered for each source, in no particular order. Below each factor is a note regarding what categories the factor weighted a source toward, and why. The notes also indicate whether a factor is quantifiable and could be more precisely measured in a future study for a future version of the chart

  1. Whether it exists in print

A “yes” answer weighted sources heavily toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias” for several reasons. Print publication costs much more money, time, and effort to build than an internet one. Most print publications have significant numbers of staff members, including professional journalists. In order to have built a successful print publication, an organization will have had to spend time and effort building credibility among a significant audience. Reputation is necessary in order to have people buy newspapers for the purposes of getting the news. As a result of the above reasons, most print publications have longevity.

2.  Whether it exists on TV, and if so, whether it existed before cable

A “yes” answer weighted sources heavily toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias” for similar reasons factor #1 (print). Cable lowered barriers to entry for radio broadcast news.

3. Whether it exists on radio, and if so, whether it existed before satellite radio

A “yes” answer weighted sources heavily toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias” for similar reasons factors 1 (print) and 2 (TV). Satellite radio lowered barriers to entry for radio broadcast news.

4. Length of time established

Greater longevity weighted sources somewhat toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias.” Longevity allows for the establishment of reputation (even a changing one) over time. However, newer sources can still be reputable and high-quality.

5. Readership/Viewership

This is a quantifiable factor. Greater readership and viewership weighted heavily toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias” and somewhat toward the middle category of “meets high standards.”

6. Reputation for a partisan point of view among other news sources

“Reputation” is a highly subjective term, just like “quality.” Reputation varies and is fuzzy, but no one denies that it exists. Reputation testimony is admissible in court as evidence, so I included a few specific kinds of reputation as valid factors here. Other news sources talk about each other. If a large, established newspaper calls an internet website “left-wing,” or “right-wing,” and if these same internet websites call the large, established newspaper “the mainstream media,” they are in agreement as to each other’s partisan point of view.

7. Whether the source actively differentiates between opinion and reporting pieces

A “yes” answer weighted sources heavily toward “mainstream/minimal partisan bias” and was a determinative factor in whether the source was categorized at least in part as “mainstream” or fell completely into “skews partisan.” For example, the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal all have labeled opinion sections, while MSNBC, FOX, and Vox do not.

8. Proportion of opinion pieces to reporting pieces

This measure is also quantifiable. Greater percentages of reporting pieces weighted heavily toward “mainstream” and somewhat toward the middle category of “meets high standards.

9.Proportion of world news coverage to American political coverage

This measure is also quantifiable. Greater international news coverage weighted sources heavily upward. However, this measure is also subjective. I am of the opinion that if a source spends more time on world news, that indicates that it views itself as responsible for delivering all major news, rather than just focusing on ones that drive website traffic, like political gossip.

10. Repetition of same news stories

High repetition, in view of the medium, weighted sources heavily into the lowest vertical category for sensationalism. This was a main reason for CNN’s ranking toward sensationalism.

11. Reputation for a partisan point of view among my peers on social media

This factor sounds the most biased and subjective of all the factors, and it probably is. It is also typically the MAIN criteria upon which most people would rank these sources on the chart. There is some validity to using this measure; if your known conservative friend likes a source, it likely has a conservative point of view, and if your known liberal friend likes a source, it likely has a liberal point of view. There are obvious drawbacks to using this measure given the “echo chamber” nature of our social media feeds. If most of your friends have the same viewpoint as you, and you are all ideologically very partisan, then if they call a particular partisan source credible, that impacts one’s impartiality.

This factor was somewhat determinative of the placement of sources along the partisan spectrum, and hardly determinative of placement vertically.

12. Party affiliation of regular contributors/interviewees

This factor is also quantifiable. A balance of party affiliation weighted somewhat toward mainstream, and imbalance weighed to the partisan sides proportionally.

13. Presence of hyperbole in titles of articles

This factor is also quantifiable. The presence of hyperbole weighted heavily away from the center for partisanship, and weighted heavily downward for quality. I correlated more hyperbole with more partisanship and less quality.

14. Presence of adjectives in persuasive writing

This factor is also quantifiable. The presence of many adjectives weighted heavily away from the center for partisanship, and weighted heavily downward for quality. I correlated more adjectives with more partisanship and less quality.

15. Quality of grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and font size

Mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation weighted sources heavily downward for quality. Improper capitalization also weighted sources heavily downward for quality. Excessive capitalization (e.g., all caps) and excessive font size weighted heavily horizontally for partisanship and somewhat downward for quality. For example, the enormous, daily, all caps top headline on HuffPo pushed it well into the hyper-partisan category, but only down a little for quality.

16. Presence of an ideological reference or party affiliation in the title of the publication

Presence of reference or affiliation weighted sources heavily to the edges for partisanship and downward for quality (e.g., Occupy Democrats, Red State).

17. Effects of trying to actively control for my own known bias

I tried to evaluate my own bias and take it into account by first defining what my bias is and then making adjustments to correct for it. This exercise is difficult but crucial. It is imprecise and highly subjective. However, anyone who tries to make placements on this chart should engage in it.

I submit that a first way to evaluate your partisan bias is to categorize yourself on a number of political issues upon which there is consensus of what constitutes left, right, and center. Therefore, I started by evaluating my own views on what I think is “correct” and “true” on the issues of civil rights, taxes, business regulation, and the role of government in general. I am pretty adamant about civil rights and equality for all, especially for people of color, women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. I believe that places me in a somewhat left-of center category. On taxes and business regulation, I believe that neither “the government” nor “corporations” are all good or all bad. On the whole, I believe government does good things about 70-90% of the time and messes things up 10-30% of the time. I believe corporations do good things about 70-90% of the time and mess things up 10-30% of the time. As a result, I fall quite squarely in the middle, ideologically, on issues of taxes, business regulation, and the role of government.

In view of these evaluations, it would be fair to call me a left-leaning moderate.

To correct for this bias, I had to consider that there is a decent chance I am just wrong on what “the truth” or “the correct answer” is on one or more (or all) political issues. The likelihood that any one of us is completely right on all the issues is quite low. I have to acknowledge that there exists consensus about certain issues to the right of where I stand on them. That is, because approximately 46% of voters consider FOX News reputable and conservative principles acceptable, I cannot simply discount their likelihood of being right on the bet that I am right and they are wrong. As a result, I ranked Fox News higher on quality and less extreme on partisanship than I probably would have otherwise. I also ranked hyper-partisan left wing sites lower on the quality scale than I would have otherwise, and ranked complex/analytical conservative sources more centrally and higher than I would have otherwise.

Questions of bias, truth, and whether there is a center get philosophical and existential very quickly. All any of us can do is try to recognize and control for our biases.

Overall, this factor pushed conservative sources up and to the center, and liberal sources down and to the left in relation to where I might have ranked them purely on my ideological stances. It also pushed the sources into a relative balance that some argue does not exist.

A future study would benefit from having an somewhat equal number of left-leaning and right-leaning moderates arriving at a consensus to control for bias.

Factors Not Considered

I did not weigh the role of money from advertisers, ownership of sources, or corporate structure as factors in any meaningful way. I believe those factors are more closely related to the issue of media focus as opposed to media partisanship and journalistic quality. This chart was about partisanship and quality. It intersects with the topic of media focus only tangentially. I think the factors of money from advertisers, ownership of sources, and corporate structure can and do influence the topics that media sources focus upon.

Complaints about mainstream media focus are valid, but this is a whole complex topic in and of itself. Examples of these complaints include “why did it take so long to get mainstream coverage of the Standing Rock/Dakota Access Pipeline protests?” “Why did it take so long to get mainstream coverage about Bernie Sanders?” Why all the obsession with Hillary’s e-mails?” “Why the all-consuming coverage of all things Trump?” People point to money from advertisers, ownership of sources, and corporate structure as the root of these problems of misplaced focus, but I think it is more complex than that. Factors related to human psychology and attention, as well as modern technology likely play a role. Therefore, I left out the factors of money and corporations because it is an altogether different inquiry, and not necessary to resolve now in order to rank sources according to partisanship and quality. I believe factors 1-17 are sufficient to meaningfully place news sources along the continuum of this particular chart.

Edits, Arguments, and Future Versions

Based on thoughtful and legitimate feedback, I would likely make some edits on placement in my original chart. These include moving the Economist to the left of the midline, and splitting CNN into TV and Internet versions, and ranking the CNN Internet version in the middle circle while leaving the CNN TV version where it is. I would consider moving the Washington Post A LITTLE to the left, but I’d like to engage in a discussion about that.

I would be happy to have arguments about each of the listed factors above, and would entertain suggestions for other factors. I am also considering suggestions for future versions.

If others are inclined to take on the work of gathering data for the factors identified as quantifiable, I would be interested in supporting such work in some way.

Thanks for reading and thinking.

 

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News Quality

 

news-quality-v4

We are living in a time where we have more information available to each of us than ever before in history. However, we are not all proficient at distinguishing between good information and bad information. This is true for liberal, moderate, and conservative people. I submit that these two circumstances are highly related to why our country is so politically polarized at the moment.

Why is it that I can have such different views on the same subject or topic as someone else who lives in the same country? Take the polarizing example of people’s opinions on Hillary. Why do I think she is qualified and inspiring but others think she is literally evil incarnate? I don’t know her personally. And neither do you. We must both admit that our opinions of her are informed by the news sources we read and believe. And news sources vary widely in what they report.

Which news sources should we believe, when there are so many to choose from, and each one is telling you not to believe another one? I put together this chart of which news sources I think you should use and which ones you should not. If you value my opinion as someone who both is reasonable and well-informed, you may find it helpful. If you don’t really care what I think, it will be useless to you. These are my subjective opinions based on having read many news stories from each of the listed sites. The only credibility or authority I can claim in this regard is that I read and write analytically for a living.

Before you look at the chart, I’d like to address the fact that many people object to media sources on the basis that they are “mainstream.” They say “I don’t believe the mainstream media! They are owned by big corporations and do things for money!” But where did they get that idea? From another media source. Remember that each media source has their own incentives (like monetary ones) to get people to listen to them and not to someone else. You have to evaluate media based on something other than the fact that one source told you not to listen to another source.

Remember that journalism is a professional and academic field with a set of agreed-upon standards. People get degrees in it and people who are really good at it get jobs in it at good organizations. Peer review helps ensure mainstream sources adhere to standards; if a story doesn’t meet those standards, other news outlets report on that. Not believing the mainstream media just because it is mainstream is like not believing a mainstream doctor or a mainstream lawyer. Sure, you should question and rate the quality of what the newspaper, doctor, or lawyer says, but you shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand because the paper is big, the doctor works at a hospital, or the lawyer works at a firm.

The chart is pretty self-explanatory. Here are some caveats and reasons for my rankings:

-I am operating out of the assumption that the less blatantly partisan the source is, the more accurate it is.
-I understand that individual reporters, even at the most reputable news sources, have their own personal biases and opinions. The rankings are an overall ranking of each site.
-“Sensational” means the article have titles like “So and so DESTROYS so and so with THIS response!”
-“Clickbait” means the articles have titles like “She walked into a meeting. What happened next will shock you!”
-“Conspiracy theories” means shit that is just made up. Like National Enquirer type stories.
-I’m sure this will offend some people that typically agree with me politically. Sorry.

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Why Guns Are Not Like Spoons

I. Why Guns are Not Like Spoons

“If guns kill people, then spoons make people fat.” That’s a favorite analogy of pro-gun folks to ostensibly make the point that it is bad decisions, and not the inanimate tools themselves that cause undesirable results from the use of the tools. This is a bad analogy, but it is not surprising that bad analogies sound perfectly logical to people predisposed to agree with them, because many such people are terrible at analogies. Unfortunately, most people who disagree with the analogy have a general sense that it is wrong, but can’t point out exactly why. That’s because people who disagree are, also, mostly terrible at analogies. Liberals and conservatives alike may unite in being bad at analogies. Remember that section of the SATs?

Tree:Leaf::Book: _______.
a) Cover
b) Page
c) Chapter
d) Read

It brings up bad memories for most people. The temptation is to read that question as “tree is to leaf as book is to ____” and then rely on sense or intuition to inform the answer. However, the best way to find the answer is to create as highly accurate a description of the relationship between the first two words as possible, then plug in the other words into the description to see what fits best. So, plugging in a simple relationship: e.g., “Trees need leaves” isn’t very good because you can also easily say “Books need covers,” as well as “Books need pages.” A highly accurate description describing what leaves are in relation to trees would be:
Leaves are the smallest but still very important individual components of a tree, which typically has high numbers of them.”
The only answer that fits “books” in the above sentence is “pages.” What makes a good, strong analogy is when the relationships between two sets of words are very highly similar and the differences are minimal.

Let’s walk through this exercise with Guns:Kill People::Spoons:Make People Fat.
Guns:Kill People::Spoons: _______

In this analogy, “make people fat” is an inaccurate answer. What is a highly accurate description of the relationship between “guns” and “kill people?” It is “the primary purpose of a gun is to kill people.” Does this work for the other set? “The primary purpose of a spoon is to make people fat?” No, that is not true. A more accurate answer is “The primary purpose of a spoon is to feed people.” We can word it in other highly accurate but less stark terms while maintaining a good analogy. An alternative example is Guns:Fire Bullets::Spoon:Shovel Food.  “A gun can be used to fire bullets , and a spoon can be used to shovel food.”

The correct analogy is not “If guns kill people, then spoons make people fat;” rather, it is “If guns kill people, then spoons feed people.”
Looking at it the reverse way, the relationship between a spoon and making people fat is “if a person uses a spoon for a long period of time, and makes bad decisions of what to use the spoon for, then in conjunction with other factors, some unrelated to spoons, a person gets fat.” That is not the relationship between a gun and killing people. If a person uses a gun correctly, one time, for its intended purpose, it kills a person immediately.

Sure, you can use a gun for other things. Like killing animals, “merely” injuring people, scaring people away by firing shots, target practice, scaring people by waving it around, collecting it and hanging it on a wall, or hitting someone with blunt end. You could even eat with it—dip the butt in some nacho cheese or something. You can use a spoon for other things. Like hanging on your nose, storing in your drawer, collecting and hanging it on a wall. You could even kill someone with it. Stab someone super hard, or something.

However, these other uses aren’t really the gun’s or spoon’s primary purpose, and they aren’t super important for alternative uses. One really buys a gun because it is especially designed for killing one or several people at a time from some distance. And one really buys a spoon to eat things like soup and cereal.

II. Why Comparing Guns with Other Inanimate Objects Matters

The distinction of the fact that the primary purpose of a gun is to kill people is relevant because as a society, we tend to regulate physical items themselves based on a combination of a few things, including 1) their primary purpose (i.e., benefit) and 2) their lethality. Guns and other weapons are different from other items because their primary purpose/benefit and their lethality are one and the same. Another common comparison gun advocates make is “well, heart disease kills way more people a year—600,000–why don’t people focus on regulating cheeseburgers?” or “cars kill 30,000 people a year too–why don’t we get rid of all cars?” The answer is that we do regulate cars and cheeseburgers and try to prevent their related deaths, but we do it with a logical relationship to their primary purpose and their immediate lethality. I assert that as Americans, we regulate guns in an illogical manner as compared to everything else we regulate.

(Warning: generalizations are forthcoming. As I have previously written, generalizations are a useful language construct for the purpose of summarizing many underlying details. The body of literature and studies on each concept discussed herein is vast. See links for supporting facts and sources. For example, this link to the CDC’s Annual Fatal Injury Report. The most comprehensive book I have read on the subject of violence is
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker. Some of my thoughts about human nature and violence derive from that book, which I highly recommend. I’d be happy to further discuss my reasoning behind any of my broad assertions. Additionally, I characterize of different kinds of death as worse than others. This characterization is subjective, but based on my observations of how people tend to react to them, such as how they are reported in the news.)

We (humans, Americans) tend to regulate most physical items based on many factors. In addition to the factors of primary purpose and lethality, we also take into consideration (often subconsciously), several other factors. We do consider the absolute number of deaths per year from a given cause, (e.g., 600,000 from heart disease, 480,000 from smoking, 30,000 from car accidents, 33,000 from guns) but that alone isn’t a determinative factor for how we regulate a particular item.

Much of all human endeavor is related to preventing and/or delaying death, and we have made many improvements in these endeavors over time. The most compelling evidence of our success are our drastically increased life expectancies around the world, especially in the last 100 years. We generally view all deaths as sad, but since all people die eventually, we tend to focus our efforts on preventing and delaying the kinds of death that most seem the most preventable; that is, those deaths that seem most atrocious, heart-wrenching, and/or unnecessary. But what factors inform how we view different causes of death in these ways, and how usually go about preventing and delaying death through laws and policies?

For one, we consider the directness of causality of a given cause of death. Heart disease kills over 600,000 per year, but it does not have one direct cause (e.g., one cheeseburger), but rather many cumulative, far-removed causes (e.g., thousands of cheeseburgers, pizzas, beers, and fried foods, combined with a lack of exercise, genetic factors, etc.). This is why no one would have been horrified if a stranger came and gave out 100 cheeseburgers to patrons at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando this past weekend. We consider direct causes generally worse and more preventable than indirect causes. The distinction between the level of directness of a cause is an important one, not only conceptually, but legally as well—liability or guilt of any offense in court usually requires a direct, or at least, proximate causation. We do regulate unhealthy things like food, but only a little bit because of its indirectness of causality to death.

Similarly, we consider immediacy of a cause of death. We all know that smoking will likely kill you, but not for a long time. If it does, it will likely do so in the form of illness somewhat later in life. We consider immediately-caused deaths to be generally worse than deaths caused over a long period of time. However, we still regulate cigarettes heavily even though death is not immediate, because its cause is direct. Notably, our most restrictive laws regarding cigarettes pertain to a smoker’s ability to smoke near others who do not want to inhale smoke.

Our heavy regulation of second-hand smoking is due to the fact that we also consider whether a cause of death is something self-inflicted or done by others. We object very much when someone else’s actions kill us. Prescription and illegal drug overdoses kill about 50,000 people a year. Like unhealthy food and smoking, drug use is primarily self-inflicted. Because we value our own autonomy and the ability to make our own decisions (even bad ones) ourselves, we consider deaths inflicted by others to be generally worse than ones that are self-inflicted. Still, even though they are self-inflicted, we consider the epidemic of these deaths to be tragic and a crisis—one that the medical community, private businesses and the government are actively trying to address. Drugs are highly regulated and/or illegal, and we actively try to prevent people from harming themselves through their regulation.

Another consideration is whether a cause of death is accidental or intentional. Most deaths occurring because of a vehicle crash are accidental. However, they are direct, immediate, and caused both by one’s self and others, making them especially painful to those they impact. As a result, government, business, individuals, and other organizations have made drastic, concerted efforts to reduce the rate of vehicle accidents over time. There are numerous testing and licensing requirements, entire codes of traffic laws, traffic infrastructure designed to reduce deaths, and ever-improving car safety technology. As a society, we have been remarkably effective at reducing auto fatalities over the last 60 or so years, and we are likely to see a precipitous drop from the current level of around 30,000 in the next few years due to the rapid development of crash-prevention technology. Once bright spot about causes of death that are direct, immediate, and inflicted by others, like auto accidents, is that they are easier to identify and therefore the most preventable through concerted effort—hence, the effectiveness of regulations.

Guns are used to inflict 11,000 deaths per year directly, immediately, by others, and worst of all, intentionally; these alone are the number of gun homicides. There about 33,000 total gun deaths—roughly the same number as deaths from car accidents—but approximately 20,000 of those are from suicides and a little less than a thousand are from accidents. If we just take the approximately 11,000 gun homicides per year (out of a total of 14,000-ish homicides), those are the ones that it would seem we would spend the most regulatory and societal effort to prevent, precisely because they are easily identifiable and therefore preventable. The suicides and accidents would also seem to be a target of legislation at least on par with the level of regulations on cars, given that they are still caused directly and immediately. However, there are very few regulations on guns at all. By “few,” I don’t mean that they are non-existent; it’s just that they pale in comparison to those surrounding the next most comparably lethal item: cars. And extreme resistance to even the most mundane laws and policies prevents progress in reducing these very preventable deaths.

When it comes to guns and other weapons, though, not all guns and weapons are equal in their lethality. Two additional factors come into consideration when we regulate weapons in general, which include 1) how many people can be killed by them at once and 2) from how far away. It makes intuitive sense that the more people can be killed from farther away, the more deadly a weapon is. Before turning to the lethality of guns, let’s address knives. Knives a bit unique in that their primary purposes range from “spreading butter” to “stabbing” (e.g., a military grade knife), so their primary purpose/benefit is sometimes, but not usually, the ability to kill itself. But because of its shape, it can be classified and used as a weapon. By the measures of “how many/how far away” it can kill people when used as a weapon, its lethality is relatively lower than that of guns. About 1,700 homicides a year are committed with knives—about 15% the number of gun homicides. Based on the wide range of primary purposes of knives, and their lower lethality, we can see why knives are moderately regulated. For example, they are prohibited on planes, in many business establishments, and sporting venues.

Just within the subset of “guns that are legal”, there is a wide range of lethality based on the criteria of “how many” and “how far away.” For example, shotguns and hunting rifles, though capable of killing humans, are primarily designed to kill animals. There are a wide variety of just this subset of guns, but certain features make them relatively less deadly against people than other guns (debatable). For example, shotgun ammunition is comprised of shot, which are small pellets that spray diffusely, so as to kill smaller animals like birds. Such ammunition is loaded often one at a time, or through a small magazine typically holding five or less shells. Many hunting rifles are designed for larger caliber bullets, for killing larger animals, but are also typically loaded through smaller magazines of ten or fewer rounds (bullets).

Handguns, in contrast, are designed for killing people and have features such as being compact and holding bullets sufficient to kill or injure a human from relatively close range. They are designed to kill only a few at a time at most, due to their round capacity. Many hold 5-15 rounds. Again, there are a wide variety of this subset, some more lethal than others.

The deadlier types of legal guns include popular semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15. What characterizes them as semi-automatic is that they can fire one bullet per trigger pull without the need for re-cocking (handguns may be semi-automatic as well). These are designed to kill many people at once, given the design features of semi-automatic firing and the magazine capacity (magazines holding 10, 20 or 30 rounds are common). Other features make this type of rifle more accurate over a longer distance than a handgun (e.g., the long barrel, a sight, firing velocity, and a buttstock for holding the rifle in place on one’s shoulder). There are a wide variety of semi-automatic guns of this subset as well.

Above this level of lethality, weapons are highly regulated and prohibited. For example, fully automatic guns (some known as machine guns) are illegal. These can fire even more bullets at a faster pace because depressing the finger once, continuously, will cause bullets to keep firing. Bombs, land mines, grenades, and other explosives are generally illegal under state and federal laws. Rocket launchers are illegal. Obviously fighter planes and missiles are illegal. Nuclear bombs are the most lethal weapons available, and can kill so many people from so far away that entire countries are prohibited from having them. The prohibition on American citizens on having any of these kinds of weapons is pretty non-controversial.

There are of course, many reasons why there is so much resistance to gun laws and policies in America, including the fact that our Constitution provides a right to bear arms that is open to wide interpretation, and that gun enthusiasts display a unique devotion to these items themselves (similar to the kind of devotion that motorcycle and car enthusiasts display for those items, but with a more fervent bent). However, if we simply compare the level of regulation that we normally apply to items based on their lethality, both to items that are less lethal and more lethal than legal guns, we can see how our level of regulation of guns is out of step with our otherwise logical approach to regulating harmful things.

Below is a list of identifiable items (some non-lethal ones chosen at random) ranked by level of lethality. The ranking includes a consideration of the above-mentioned factors of primary purpose, directness, immediacy, whether self-inflicted or not, and whether resulting death is accidental or not. For items that are actually designed for the purpose of killing, two additional factors of “how many” and “from how far away” are also included. Next to each item is a characterization of the level of regulation applied to the item. There are higher regulations on guns in some states than others, but there are glaring holes in regulation (such as the fact that you can legally buy a gun without a background check or sometimes without identification at a gun show or online) such that the regulations can be easily rendered non-existent. Such gaps in regulation do not exist with regard to, for example, cars. Cars must be at least licensed and registered in every state and for every purchase.

1. Broccoli                                        None
2. Spoons                                         None
3. Cheeseburgers                         Minimal
4. Alcohol                                        Medium
5. Drugs                                            High
6. Cigarettes                                   High
7. Cars                                               High
8. Knives                                          Low
9. Sporting Guns                          Low to Medium
10. Handguns                                Low to Medium
11. Semi-automatic Rifles        Low to Medium
12. Automatic Guns                    High/ Generally Prohibited
13. Bombs/Explosives              High/ Generally Prohibited
14. Rocket Launchers                Prohibited
15. Fighter Planes                       Prohibited
16. Nuclear Bombs                     Prohibited

Based on how we otherwise logically address the lethality of items, the fact that we regulate guns any less than we regulate cars doesn’t make much sense. The fact that there are low regulations on semi-automatic rifles, but that automatic guns are prohibited, is equally nonsensical. If we are going to regulate the safety of items on a comparative basis, we should do so in a proportional manner.

When comparing any item to guns, we should take care to evaluate exactly how they are similar and dissimilar. The farther removed the similarities are, the less effective the comparison. Saying that “anything can be used to kill someone” just dismisses everything we logically understand about physical objects, and is not persuasive regarding non-regulation of guns. If we were to apply our normal rationale to gun regulation, we would regulate sporting guns at least as much as cars, handguns quite a bit more, and semi-automatic rifles quite heavily. To do otherwise is to ignore every rational thought we have about how to reduce death and improve safety.
We have been so successful at extending our lifespans and reducing death and danger in the face of so many potential harms by applying reason, studies, and cause-and-effect relationships. We can apply these same tools to reducing deaths by guns as well. In doing so, if we are going to make comparisons between guns and other things, let’s scrutinize the validity of those comparisons. We may find that it is most productive not to make comparisons or analogies at all, but to evaluate causes and effects of gun deaths solely in view of the attributes of guns alone.