Shells and Casings: A Systemic Media Problem
You will tell me that this is not the worst problem in either the media or our societies, and I will agree. Although it may be related to more serious problems or inspire some inquiry in the economics of language, you may consider this post as a light midsummer piece. Reporting on a murder mystery, the Wall Street Journal writes, speaking of a sheriff’s deputy (“A Hiker Died With a Bullet in His Chest. Why Did Police Say He Was Stabbed by a Stick?” July 12, 2023):
He didn’t see any bullet wounds in the puppy, and after searching the area for 25 minutes, he couldn’t find any shell casings.
As the story headline says, not only had the puppy been shot, but his master too. Here, I am focusing on the muddled terminology.
The deputy sheriff would not be looking for “shell casings” except if he had already seen a wound or wounds typical of a shotgun blast. Only shotgun shells have “shell casings,” because the whole cartridge is called a “shell.” A pistol or a rifle typically fires a single bullet propelled from the end of a metal (usually brass) “case” or simply “casing” containing the powder; together, the bullet and the casing are called “cartridge.” A shotgun shell casing, mainly made of plastic, contains a large number of pellets on top of the powder. True, there is the exception of shotgun shells that contain only one “bullet” commonly called “slug.” The other exception is revolver shotshells, designed for snakes and unlikely to kill a dog or a man. It would be surprising if the deputy sheriff had sloppily spoken of “shell casings” while he was looking for all sorts of casings.
If the deputy sheriff really said he was looking for “shell casings,” it would suggest that he was not exactly on top of his job, as his failure to identify a bullet wound on the dead hiker would confirm. By definition, of course, murder mysteries raise many questions.
This being said, the reporter may not be allowed to go scot-free. Ignorance of firearm basics (it is not rocket science) seems to be systemic in the media and, alas, not only in European or Canadian media—where we should not be overly surprised to find that they can’t distinguish a rifle from a broomstick. I suppose that ordinary individuals, as opposed to state agents or their war conscripts, should not know about these things. In a previous EconLog post on a related topic, I wrote:
Perhaps it should be a condition of the job, even in America sadly, that journalists and their editors own and shoot guns.