If you’ve been following gun-related news for any length of time, you’ve probably come across a website called The Trace.
The Trace bills itself as “an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom” that covers gun-related topics in the United States. The outlet has in recent years sought to raise its credibility by partnering with major news sources like The New Yorker, Slate, and The Atlantic to report on topics like gun-related crime, universal background checks, and the National Rifle Association.
In fact, it was The Trace’s Mike Spies who, in partnership with The New Yorker, launched against the NRA the first public attacks that eventually resulted in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit seeking to dissolve the gun-rights organization.
That story put The Trace in the national spotlight, and its editors and authors have worked hard to convince readers that they’re a source of objective, unbiased gun-related news.
Especially if those readers are unfamiliar with issues relating to firearms and the Second Amendment, it’s easy to believe. The Trace publishes think pieces considering the efficacy of “assault weapon” buybacks and universal background checks that are written in measured, even language. They’ve published profiles of NRA shooting instructors, op-eds on the benefits of stockpiling ammunition, and a woman’s touching tribute to her father after she inherited his guns.
But new analysis by GunsAmerica has revealed that The Trace is anything but “independent” and “nonpartisan.” According to publicly available tax documents, nearly 70 percent of The Trace’s expenses are paid for by the anti-gun group Everytown for Gun Safety, and the outlet counts Everytown’s president, John Feinblatt, as its principal officer.
Though it claims editorial independence and seeks to be counted alongside the New York Times as a trusted source of news, one can argue that The Trace is still nothing more than a mouthpiece for Everytown.
“Seed Funding” and Website Scrubbing
When it first launched in 2015, The Trace was more honest about its bias and funding. They still claimed to be “independent,” but they also admitted “bias to our beat.”
“We believe that this country’s rates of firearm-related deaths and injuries — an average of 91 lives lost per day, and more than 200 people suffering nonfatal bullet wounds — are far too high,” the organization said on its website, according to the Internet Archive.
Even at the time, this “seed funding” language was designed to obfuscate their true source of revenue. Everytown for Gun Safety may have provided the start-up dollars to get The Trace off the ground, the website implied, but that’s in the past. Now, The Trace is supposedly untethered from Everytown’s anti-gun bias.
The outlet has only leaned into that misleading implication. Today, The Trace has scrubbed nearly all mention of Everytown from its website. The Trace claims that editors have “editorial independence” by maintaining “a firewall between our news coverage decisions and all sources of revenue.” Their reporters supposedly operate “independently of that support and retain full control of all editorial decisions,” but it’s unclear how this process works.
They still offer readers a list of their donors in an apparent bid for transparency. But while they do include Everytown on that list, not even the “seed funding” language has survived. Everytown now sits as just one of many organizations that give money to The Trace, many of which don’t appear to have a bias for or against gun rights.
Who’s Really in Charge at The Trace?
But Everytown isn’t just one donor among many. According to its tax filing, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund gave The Trace a whopping $2,029,495 in 2018, the most recent year available.
Everytown, in fact, gave more money to a supposedly independent news outlet than they did to any other anti-gun organization—including their own. The gun-control group gave more than twice as much money to The Trace as they gave to their own lobbying organization, the Everytown for Guns Safety Action Fund.
Two million cold ones is a nice chunk of change, but how much of The Trace’s budget did Everytown account for in 2018?
According to The Trace’s tax filings, a huge percentage. Their total expenses in 2018 amounted to $2,977,050, and the total amount of money they spent on “program services” – or, the work they reported as related to their core mission – was $2,273,847.
In other words, Everytown accounted for nearly 70 percent of The Trace’s total expenses and nearly 90 percent of its program services budget. The next highest donation we found was from an outfit called the Joyce Foundation, which gave The Trace $150,000, or 5 percent of its budget.
The Trace is connected to Everytown through more than just money. On its tax filing, the outlet lists John Feinblatt as its president and principle officer. If that names sounds familiar, there’s a reason: Feinblatt is also president of Everytown.
According to the IRS, a “principle officer” is “a person who has ultimate responsibility for implementing the decisions of the organization’s governing body, or for supervising the management, administration, or operation of the organization.”
Like every other connection to Everytown, The Trace has scrubbed all mention of Feinblatt from its website. Even though Everytown pays the bills and Feinblatt calls the shots, unsuspecting readers would never guess that The Trace is entirely beholden to Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun organization.
That doesn’t sound very independent to us.
To their credit, The Trace agreed to speak with us for this piece.
“No one tells us how to report or not report,” James Burnett, the website’s editorial director, told us over the phone. “That is something that all of our funders understand.”
Burnett and his colleagues may not receive direction from their donors directly, but the bias in their reporting is clear to anyone familiar with Second Amendment issues and basic journalistic principles about balance.
One example currently on the homepage of their website covers state policies that allow guns to be carried on capitol grounds. There’s nothing wrong with this topic, of course, but The Trace gives no space for the pro-gun argument. The piece exclusively quotes legislators who are working to ban guns on capitol grounds, and leads with the quote, “This isn’t normal. This is crazy.”
Another article featured on the home page discusses the judicial philosophies of Amy Coney Barrett. Again, it makes sense for The Trace to cover this topic, but they make the same assertions you might read on Everytown’s website: the Second Amendment only pertains to militias, Barrett’s philosophy is a threat to gun control, and Barrett will “remake Second Amendment jurisprudence.”
Virtually every article includes the same kind of subtle bias. We asked Burnett about this, and he said, “We do include on the website our editorial independence policy. We list our donors. If we have to report on one of the donors, we include that in the story. Beyond that, we go where the facts lead.”
Not everything The Trace publishes is wrong, misleading, or even anti-gun. We at GunsAmerica have found their research and reporting helpful, and we occasionally use their sources for our articles.
But they should be more transparent about where their allegiances lie. If they explained clearly that they receive most of their funding from Everytown, they wouldn’t risk confusing or misleading readers. Instead, they obfuscate their revenue streams, claim independence, and legitimize their reporting by partnering with mainstream outlets.
They owe it to the general public to be more explicit about their bias. Gun control and the Second Amendment are vitally important topics in our nation today, and any outlet reporting on these issues should strive not to mislead readers or push a hidden agenda.