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The case for gun control in Stephanie Soechtig and Katie Couric’s latest documentary collaboration, Under the Gun, is aggressively laid out — but it’s not an expression that you’ll hear either push.
After years of non-starter debates about the role readily available arms play in domestic killings and terrorism, a fact many cannot reconcile with the Second Amendment, Couric suggests that it’s time to make the dialogue about something most everyone can agree on: the scary reality of gun violence in America. Covering mass shootings throughout her career, starting with Columbine in 1999, Couric admits that even journalists are starting to harden to the frequency of tragedy. That’s one reason why she chose the subject for her latest deep dive.
Their second feature after 2014 obesity expose Fed Up, Under the Gun debuts Sunday, May 15, on Epix. Couric sat down with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the premiere to talk about what she learned in the field, how her coverage choices have shifted at her day job (global news anchor at Yahoo) and what the future holds now that the struggling Internet giant is on the market.
You seem to make a point of using the term “gun violence” and not “gun control.”
I think we’re trying to eradicate the term “gun control,” because you say that and people automatically dig in their heels. We’re trying to take a look at the gun violence situation in the United States and arm our people, ironically, with the information they need to have an intelligent conversation about why we are where we are. Nobody wants to be controlled.
Is that a conclusion you came to while making the film?
The director, Stephanie Soechtig, and I talked about it, and I think that she learned from all the people who participated in the film that they have come to the same conclusion. It’s just not particularly productive to frame in those terms.
What did you learn that surprised you most?
There’s a lot. The fact that 74 percent of the NRA favors universal background checks. Many NRA members we spoke to outside their convention in Nashville seemed to be shocked that you can be on the terror watch list and still purchase a gun legally in this country. There is so much more common ground than the debate will lead you to believe. If we all just took a deep breath and talked to each other instead of at each other, there is room for measures to be implemented that would just resolve to more responsibility. I think there’s this unrealistic, and this is just me from what we reported on, paranoia and fear that any kind of measures will lead to a banning or confiscation of all guns. We began with the acknowledgment that people have a right to bear arms. It is a constitutional right. But we should at least discuss potential measures that may reduce the amount of violence, because I think everybody is anti-gun violence. We’re just hoping that this will set the table for a more rational dinner conversation.
Was there a particular instance of gun violence you covered that you think of as the wake-up call?
Like most Americans, I almost became enured to this incident after incident. I think for me and so many people, Newtown, what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the reaction to it made me think, “What can we as a society and a nation do to prevent this from happening?” A lot of guns used during a crime or murder are purchased legally, but a lot aren’t. Just because we can’t completely eradicate gun violence because we can’t have a fail-safe method to prevent those who shouldn’t have guns from having guns doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to get a handle on this and reduce it.
What were you guys looking for as far as vehicle for distribution?
We wanted somebody who would do everything in their power to make people aware of the film, and I think Epix was very enthusiastic. In many ways, I think documentaries are our new form of journalism. They’re taking deep dives into issues that might not have gotten an hour back in the day. I can’t tell you how many people still come up to me or say on Twitter, “You know I watched Fed Up. It’s really changing the way I eat, the way I feed my kids and the way I look at food.” That’s really a wonderful thing, though I don’t think the soft-drink industry was crazy about it.
How easy is it for you to negotiate the time commitment of this project with your job at Yahoo?
It’s challenging. I do have some flexibility. I don’t have to be in a studio everyday at 4:00 or every night at 6:30 or every morning at 7 a.m. I can then come out to L.A. for some Yahoo interviews and then also work with Stephanie on this or work in the edit room and give my two cents. I’ve been extremely productive at Yahoo, too. I put out a lot of material on a regular basis.
What’s the dialogue with you been like since Yahoo cut down on original content and started looking for a buyer?
I think that will really be decided based upon the person who buys it and the direction they want to go. Everywhere we go, wherever you work, there seems to be a corporate turmoil — especially in such a rapidly changing landscape. I want to support the great group of people I work with and continue to do really good content, cover the news as best we can. We all have a wait-and-see attitude. It could be somebody who doesn’t want original content, and that’s a business decision they’ll have to make. You want people who are really committed to doing quality work and committed to making sure it’s distributed properly. It’s a really exciting platform.
This is your first presidential election covering for the platform. How do you want to cover it differently?
We’re still sort of figuring out the best way to take advantage of a digital platform. We have been doing a lot of live shows on primary nights, on Super Tuesday, and we get really interesting guests to come in and for people who just want to watch things on their computers. We quote unquote iterate — which is the word of the year — our content for all kinds of platforms. We’ll take highlights from primary nights so people can get sort of snackable amount on their phones. I did an obit on Prince and got 5 million views, because we put it together right away. One of the interesting things that I’ve learned is about targeting content to the audience that really wants to see it. The notion of mass media is, in many ways, an oxymoron. It’s become so niche. If I’m interviewing Elizabeth Banks, for example, and  million people are interested in The Hunger Games on Facebook, you tailor some of the content for those people who are interested in that topic rather than hoping that you cast a huge broad net and hoping this many people will watch.
Have you figured out what type of story plays best for you?
It depends. I’m not a super niche journalist. I’m interested in a lot of things. One day I can do a really fun profile about Samantha Bee about women in comedy and politics — and then the next day I can interview Syrian refugees who were brought from Greece to Rome by the Pope. Maybe there’s some overlap between people who would be interested in A and B. I’m interested in both. The challenge now is to be truly multi-platform and to iterate the content appropriately for all those different platforms. But who the hell knows?
Has booking gotten easier since you started at Yahoo?
It’s been challenging at times. We have a very big fire hose, and my pieces have actually significant engagement, but it’s sort of like telling somebody dragging a horse and buggy that we’ve got this new automobile a test run. It’s like me on a BMW commercial. They know about the Internet but I don’t think they necessarily appreciate the reach of a well-promoted Yahoo piece. People need proof of concept.
Ratings have tipped in Today‘s favor again, a battle that continues to fascinate people. Why do you think people care so much about morning shows?
I mean, I’m fascinated and remain so fascinated. I think it speaks to the intimacy that the morning show provides. A lot of television journalists or on-air broadcasters, they hold you at arms length. A morning show is a very familial environment. People see you for who you are because it’s hard to fake it for when you’re on camera that much and, as a result, become really invested in the personalities. When there’s any kind of turmoil or upheaval, people feel it’s as if it happens to somebody they know very well. When I did Today, people did tell me that they felt like they knew me. I’m, like, “Well, you kind of do because you’ve seen me in all situations. You’ve seen me be pregnant. You’ve seen my husband get sick and die. You’ve seen me react and be funny or serious.” It’s very a 360-degree perspective on someone’s psyche in a weird way.
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