On Bullets and Bad Reporting

As I watched the unfolding tragedy of the shooting in Las Vegas, NBC news reported that the gunman used “large caliber” weapons, while an anchor noted that the shooter was 1700 feet away from the concert (it was actually about 1200 feet) and wondered aloud how a bullet could go that far.

Again this morning Savannah Guthrie repeatedly referred to the weapons employed in the shooting as “large caliber.” Neither Lester Holt nor Matt Lauer corrected her. They went to commercial break and came back. She repeated the phrase again and again. Evidently, no one at NBC knows what caliber means, or is able to distinguish it from capacity or muzzle velocity.

At the same time, NBC cut to a local sheriff, who revealed that all the weapons seized were chambered for .308 down to .223 (also designated 7.62 NATO and 5.56 respectively). The former designation is caliber; the latter refers to millimeters. Both refer to the diameter of the bullet.

A .308 is not a large round. You could scour the Internet and not find an intelligent gun owner who would refer to the .308 as “large caliber.” A 45-70 Government is a large round; a .458 Winchester Magnum is a large round; a .500 Nitro Express is a very large round. A .308 is not. When you watch an old TV show, and the policeman draws a .38 Special revolver from his holster, do you think to yourself, “What a large caliber weapon!?” Of course not. And yet a .38 Special is a bigger diameter round than a .308.

A simple Internet search would have revealed to Savannah and Lester and Matt that Savannah was probably referring to high capacity, which describes the number of rounds any given weapon or clip holds. She may even have been referring to rate of fire, which describes the number of rounds per unit of time that a given weapon can send downrange. But what she said—over and over again—was caliber.

It bears note also that even if the shooter had been 1700 feet from the concert, it would have made little difference. Again, a simple Internet search would have helped. A round of .223 (5.56) hunting ammunition boasts a muzzle velocity (the speed at which the bullet exits the weapon) of 3000-3500 feet per second. Some velocities are higher. The point is that 1200 feet is 400 yards and men and women in our military routinely train at 500 yards with 5.56 ammunition. The shooter in Las Vegas did not even need to aim. The distance was well within the lethal range of the round, and the terminal ballistics (the speed of the round when it hits its target) was more than sufficient to be deadly.

Now, I am not even a gun guy. I have an old, lever-action hunting rifle. I’m just a man with a computer who can do a simple Internet search. But evidently NBC can’t. I’m not advocating for or against gun control; I’m advocating for competent journalism that spends more time on facts and less on sensationalism.

We, the people, receive this level of reporting because we, the people, accept it.

2 thoughts on “On Bullets and Bad Reporting

  1. 59 dead and over 500 injured, staccato reports, and screams of existential fear are sensational regardless of the terms: large caliber, high velocity, high powered, altered mechanisms…or whatever; we all knew what she meant in the context of this terrible massacre. I can’t help but suspect the motives of this post.

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    1. Notice that I am not assigning motive to any of the reporters. I am assigning professional incompetence and a willingness to seize upon that which is, as you note, legitimately sensational, but to do so in a way that brought confusion rather than clarity. I disagree that we all knew what she meant, for she did not know what she meant. If their reporting had been poor in the moment, I would understand; extemporaneous speech is a challenge in the best of conditions, and facts come in slowly. But then they went to bed. They slept. They prepared a newscast for the morning after the shooting. Time elapsed. NBC had time to think, a team of journalists to conduct research, and an opportunity to choose words carefully. They did not. Regardless of what you think of guns and gun control, of politics and policies, or of anything else, it was bad reporting. Sloppy work. Poor journalism. That’s my point and my whole point. Agree or disagree, I have no ulterior motive other than to say that we receive no better news because we demand no better news.

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