Was This Intended Or Unintended?

Where you place paragraphs in a story makes a difference and can lead to different interpretations of your argument. Today’s Wall Street Journal provides an excellent example of it in a story on the flaws of the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The story is in the Southeast paper edition of the Journal but does not appear online. The only thing online is an infographic on the failures of the system.

Consider this paragraph.

And then there are private sales. Background checks aren’t always required when sales are made by private sellers, those people who make only occasional guns sales from private collections.

It was immediately followed by this paragraph.

Several mass-shooters have purchased guns they shouldn’t have been able to buy. 

The story by Ashby Jones then goes on to give examples of how both the Virginia Tech mass-murderer and the Sutherland Spring First Baptist mass-murderer were able to obtain their weapons, though prohibited persons, after passing a FBI NICS check. The story does detail how the Virginia court and the US Air Force had failed to submit the records for inclusion in the FBI’s databases.

By placing the second paragraph immediately after the paragraph on private sales, the reader is at first led to believe that the mass-murderers obtained their firearms from a private seller which we know was not the case.

If that second paragraph had added “due to the failure to submit disqualifying records to the NICS database” or “even though they passed background checks”, then it would be understood that the killers obtained their firearms due to a failure of the system and not due to the negligence or greed of a private seller.

Is this a case of unintended juxtaposition? Is it a case of tight editing for brevity in the second paragraph? Or is it, more problematically, a case of using the structure of the story to convey an argument for so-called universal background checks.

I don’t know but I do know that the wrong impression is initially given by the structure of the story.

If this came from the New York Times or the Washington Post I would say it was intended to mislead. Since the Wall Street Journal tends to be more neutral on firearms issues, I could go either way. Nonetheless, this is a case of the mainstream media, intentionally or unintentionally, pushing the narrative for universal background checks which is wrong.


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