Misinforming the public about ‘ammo shortage’

Req: A, E, N, S

News organizations have been spreading the word this summer about how the war in Iraq has created a serious shortage of ammunition for police, hunters and others.

“Bullets are hard to come by, and many say military operations abroad are cutting supplies that local law enforcement agencies need for training.” — CBS13, Sacramento

“Nationwide, police departments have said there’s an ammunition shortage, because of an increased demand for bullets because of the war in Iraq.” — KFYR-TV, Bismarck, N.D.

“The nation’s bullet shortage is starting to affect some Lower Bucks police departments, who are facing skyrocketing ammunition prices and a long wait for orders, officials said.” — phillyburbs.com, Philadelphia

“Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages hitting police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.” — The Associated Press

The problem apparently affects all of North America.

“Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, North America is running out of ammo for civilians — mainly hunters.” — The Province, Vancouver, Canada

One problem with the story… it’s simply not true, or so says National Public Radio, reporting that “the situation is not dire and the war effort probably is not the biggest factor.”

“The U.S. military uses much less handgun and rifle ammunition than police departments and sports shooters. And while the military is using roughly three times more ammo than it did several years ago, it makes most of that itself. The Army does buy some supplies from commercial vendors, but military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are having less of an impact on ammunition supplies than some press reports indicate.”

[View and listen to NPR’s Full Report]

The price of copper has increased, prompting police departments and consumers to stock up. That is the real issue.

So how do so many media outlets make such a glaring error? Several factors likely contribute to the problem:

  1. They got their information from police officers who had no apparent reason to lie about the information. Quite the reverse. Given that many officers have a history with or ties to the military, they might be expected to be more sympathetic to the war effort than an average citizen.Unfortunately, most of the journalists probably failed to ask where police got their information. While departments are generally reliable sources of information about their own investigations, they are no more authoritative about the cause of international ammunition shortages than gun shop owners or hunters.
  2. The explanation sounds reasonable on the surface. Reporters didn’t have a reason to doubt its veracity.Journalists are taught to be skeptical. But blaming the use of ammunition by the military for creating an ammunition shortage sounds quite plausible.
  3. Some on the right, such as blogger “Confederate Yankee” who discusses the snafu in detail, contend that the media have a “target fixation” when it comes to the war in Iraq.Certainly there are those on the left, including some in the media, who saw this as an opportunity to take another swing at the government’s handling of the war in Iraq. And I wouldn’t argue that it played no role whatsoever in journalists’ failure to fully vet the story. One need only look to the Duke lacrosse embarrassment to see what happens when an incorrect story matches journalists’ preconceived notions. But in this particular instance, other factors likely played a larger role.

When information comes from an otherwise reliable source, appears to be entirely plausible and matches the storyline that’s being pursued at the time, it becomes very easy for even experienced journalists to proceed with blinders on.

There’s a lesson to be learned here.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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