In 1995, Jane Ellen Stevens, a science writer, embarked on a collaborative project with Dr. Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, a public health research organization, and Dr. Esther Thorson, a statistician and Associate Dean at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. This year they brought in Brant Houston, Director of the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting, from Missouri’s School of Journalism.
Called the Violence Reporting Project, it is designed to educate journalists about the need to incorporate a public health perspective in their reporting about violence and to demonstrate effective ways for newspapers to do this.
“Measuring the Effects of Changing the Way Violence Is Reported”
— Lori Dorfman and Esther ThorsonWith funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation, Stevens wrote “Reporting on Violence: A Handbook for Journalists.” The California Wellness Foundation then funded the development of one-day workshops for California newspapers that indicate interest in changing how they report violence.
To date, Stevens, Dorfman and Thorson and Houston have done workshops at five newspapers: The San Francisco Examiner, Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. Stevens has also presented information about the project to television and newspaper journalists at a Knight Specialized Journalism Fellowship workshop on health care and at a Poynter Institute workshop on crime and public safety reporting.
What follows are two articles describing aspects of this project. In her article, Stevens describes specific steps newspapers can take to transform their coverage of violence. Dorfman and Thorson then explain the tools this project uses to measure the effect of such editorial changes.
Integrating the Public Health Perspective into Reporting on Violence
In 1977 a group of physicians in the U.S. Public Health Service met to draw up a list of steps to prevent premature deaths in the United Statesthose that occur before age 65. To their surprise, among the top five at that time were violent injuries, homicide and suicide. More than two decades later, these are still among the top 10, and the highest rates of violent death and injury occur among children and adolescents.
Out of this meeting emerged a new medical and scientific specialty that studies violence as an epidemic. Specialists in this new discipline put violence in the same category and apply the same tools as those that are being used to reduce and control other epidemics, such as lung cancer and heart disease. They study the interaction among the victim, the agent of injury or death, and the environment; define risk factors, and develop methods to prevent injury or death.
Few would deny that violence in the United States is epidemic. In 1984, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared that violence was as much a public health issue for today’s physicians as smallpox was for the medical community in previous generations. Even with the recent decrease in homicide, the United States still ranks first among industrialized nations in its rate of violent deaths.
I began reporting on violence epidemiology in 1993. Among the stories I wrote was one that dispelled some myths of violence. When my editors expressed surprise at what the data showedthat most women who are murdered die at the hands of someone they know, that most male homicide victims are killed by strangers, that children are at greater risk of death caused by abusive family members than from disease, that teenagers are at greater risk of crime than the elderlyan alarm went off in my mind. If news organizations were reporting crime on a regular basis, why were these facts a surprise to journalists?
I discovered that the answer lies in the way journalists report crime. We do so only from a law enforcement and criminal justice standpoint. With the emergence of violence epidemiology, it became clear to me that there is a thirdand essentialpart of the violence story that we are missing, not because the information isn’t available, but because most reporters don’t know it exists.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated a program on violence prevention in 1983, and since then hundreds of states and city public health departments have established offices of violence prevention. For more than 15 years, epidemiologists have been identifying violence risk factors. Among those they now track regularly are the availability of firearms and alcohol, racial discrimination, unemployment, violence in the media, lack of education, abuse as a child, witnessing violent acts in the home or neighborhood, isolation of the nuclear family, and belief in male dominance over females.
But, so far, the journalism community has not taken full advantage of this knowledge.
Traditionally, news organizations report many fewer violent incidents than occur in their communities. The violent incidents are thus treated, and regarded by readers, as isolated, random events instead of predictable and preventable problems.
But few violent incidents are isolated or random. Each violent incident that occurs in a community has more of the characteristics of a deadly communicable disease than of an isolated event involving the individual participants. Furthermore, each incident reverberates through the families of perpetrator and victim with long-term economic consequences (loss of job, loss of home, loss of income, medical bills, attorney bills) and psychological consequences (sense of loss, fear, alienation, hopelessness, repeated violence). The incident also affects the community with economic consequences (cost of medical treatment, rehabilitation, incarceration, trial, welfare, reduction in property values, business flight) and long-term psychological consequences (feelings of fear for personal safety, mistrust of members of community).
From reading or viewing reports of violence and crime, the public is learning little about the public health approach to preventing violence. That is because, in reporting violence and crime, news organizations, generally speaking, do not regularly inform readers or viewers about the status of the different types of violence in their communities. Nor do they provide readers or viewers with information about the economic and psychological consequences of the different types of violence in their communities. Readers and viewers are rarely given enough information to put reported violent incidents into context to know what violence is “usual” and able to be prevented, and what is unusual and thus unlikely to be preventable. Information about the methods being developed by the public health community (or not being developed, as the case may be) to prevent violence, is rarely reported. This means that readers and viewers don’t find out about whether their local communities are implementing these preventive approaches and, if they are, whether these approaches are successful.
To report violence in a way that includes a public health or prevention approach poses three major challenges:
- How does a news organization regularly report the status of violence?
- How does a news organization add a public health perspective to daily reporting?
- How does a news organization link public health, law enforcement and criminal justice in its violence coverage?
Most news organizations’ coverage of violence emphasizes unusual violent incidents, such as a kidnapping, rape and murder of a middle-aged woman by a stranger; violent incidents in which many people are killed by one person, such as the school murders in Oregon and Alabama; and more common violent incidents in which famous people are involved, such as the O.J. Simpson spousal murder case and the Pamela Lee spousal abuse case. The media give much less attention and space to common violent incidents, those that involve people who are not famous, or those in which only one person is killed or injured by an acquaintance or relative.
News organizations occasionally do excellent features or projects on violence issues, often as the result of a follow-up to a story to which much attention and space has been given. But months, sometimes years, go by without an investigative report or in-depth feature story about the status of a particular type of violence.
In March 1998, there were at least 67 murders, 175 rapes and 4,042 aggravated assaults in Los Angeles County (Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department reports only). During that same time, The Los Angeles Times reported on 24 murders, three rapes and 39 aggravated assaults. In San Francisco, over a three-month period in 1997, there were 19 murders, 955 aggravated assaults and 55 rapes. The Examiner covered eight homicides, seven aggravated assaults, and none (0) of the rapes. Our analysis of newspapers’ content compared with actual crime statistics found comparable disparities in Philadelphia, San Jose and Sacramento.
Most journalists respond to the presentation of such findings by saying: “That’s what we do. We report the unusual.” But that’s only a part of what journalists do when we report on other topics. Newspapers regularly report in-depth the status of sports, business, political campaigns, weather and local entertainment. By not reporting on the status of violence, we are missing the most important story about the bulk of “ordinary” violent incidents that are actually doing the greatest harm to a community. And by not including a public health approach in our violence reporting, we don’t offer readers and viewers enough of the kind of information they need to work toward preventing violent incidents that are causing them and their community the greatest harm.
Clearly no news organizations can cover each individual act of violence. However, a newspaper can report on violent incidents in a way that doesn’t get rid of the traditional “good crime stories,” often the unusual, but transforms “the usual” into “good stories” that give readers and viewers enough information to reduce violence in their communities.
These are some suggested changes in reporting violence that several newspapers are in the process of instituting. Most of these suggestions apply to large organizations simply because of staffing and expense. But the principle of linking crime coverage to its public health dimensions is a key one that can be integrated into stories regardless of the size of the news organization.
- Create a local violence database that lists violent incidents accumulated from a variety of sources, including law enforcement (police reports), criminal justice (coroner reports, restraining orders) and public health (hospital discharge data, emergency room data). Link this to a geographic information system component so that reporters and editors can more easily identify crime trends. Include a story-mapping component in the database so that reporters and editors can see, at a glance, what stories have been published in which categories.
- Hire a violence reporter who is trained in computer-assisted reporting, has a science or medical reporting background, and is familiar with epidemiological methods.
- Establish a violence-prevention reporting team with an editor, violence reporter, police reporter and features reporter. Assign part-time to this team a medical/health reporter, science/technology reporter, education reporter, political reporter, business reporter and graphics editor.
- Organize the team around the violence-prevention reporter who monitors the local, state and national databases as well as public health research. This reporter presents the information to the team, which decides on how to develop stories based on the data. The police and court reporters continue to do their traditional coverage, augmented by what they can retrieve from the database with the help of the violence reporter.
- Eliminate short briefs. They offer no context or useful information.
- For every violent incident reported (high-profile or common), add information as text or a graphic to put each reported violent incident in the context of local violent incidents. Include relevant risk factors, such as the type of weapon, relationship of victim to perpetrator, whether alcohol or other drugs were involved, whether the perpetrator and victim have families. Include as much initial information about consequences as possible: What happens to the families? What is the cost of incarceration?
- For each violent incident reported, do follow-up stories to address the consequences of the violent incident that affect the immediate families and the community. Include stories and information drawn from public health resources, in addition to law enforcement and criminal justice sources. Add information about economic and psychological consequences of crime to family and community as well as information about public health research into particular violence issues. These stories would appear in the weekly violence newspaper section, or as a feature on television news.
- Newspapers can publish a weekly page that focuses on solutions to crime and violence. This weekly page would include:
- A column about the week’s most prominent violent incidents, placing them in perspective and explaining why they received the most attention. This can be written by the newspaper’s ombudsman or violence reporter, and in it the writer can also explain how the community is working to prevent such crimes, if they are preventable, or why they are not. If the community is not working to reduce preventable crimes, find a community that has had success doing so.
- A graphic status report on violent crime within the community and how this compares with the national goals set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or local goals set by the community.
- A feature written by the violence, medical/health, science/technology, political, education or social services reporters that focuses on one aspect of a particular type of violence. The story would include solutions, attempted solutions, or the status of previously reported attempted solutions to prevent violence in the community.
- Design a local morbidity and mortality section for the news organization’s Web site. Make the newspaper’s local violence database available. Report deaths and injuries from all causes. Include obituaries. This becomes not only a vehicle for reporting on violence, but the data reviewed and included in this section would also enable reporters to spot trends in other types of death, including diseases such as hepatitis, AIDS, cancer, stroke, etc., and to do stories if the changes are statistically significant.
- Publish an annual report on “health of the community” to compare rates of violence in the community with national goals to reduce rates of violence in “Healthy People 2000,” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
With an expanded approach to reporting violence, a news organization provides readers and viewers with more information on the context and consequences of crime. It covers violence from an investigative standpoint, strengthening its role as a community watchdog. It reports violent incidents, but does not wait for them to occur to report to readers on that particular type of violence. In this way, readers and viewers obtain knowledge of the ongoing status of violence in their communities, the toll taken on families and the community, and the success or failure of measures taken to prevent it. Through its Web site’s morbidity and mortality section, a news organization can serve as a community’s repository of information about statistics that are vital for them to know as well as the interpreter of changes in those statistics. Readers will be able to access enough information to know when it is appropriate to take personal action and when and how they can influence their communities and governing bodies to prevent violence.
Jane Ellen Stevens has been a journalist for 25 years. She is currently a science and technology video journalist for New York Times Television and has been writing about violence issues for several years. She wrote a handbook for journalists, “Reporting on Violence.”
Rewriting a Story of Juvenile Crime
Below is an example of an article that has been rewritten to incorporate some of the guidance offered by The Violence Reporting Project. The original article appeared in a major metropolitan daily newspaper. It has now been rewritten to put coverage of this juvenile crime into a broader perspective. The highlighted sections show where additional information was placed. These sections help the reader to identify risk factors and consequences that often are not normally a part of daily coverage.
As the authors of the “Reporting on Violence” report acknowledge, “There is no right way to do this.” However, this revised story exemplifies one way of incorporating the public health context.
The “Reporting on Violence” handbook suggests accompanying sidebars and follow-up stories. For example, gang violence trends: how the change in the choice of weapons — the increased availability of firearms — has increased the rate of homicide; and how former gang members are joining together to prevent guns from getting into the hands of gang members.
Also offered are possible graphs to illustrate key points: U.S. victimization by age group, race, sex per 1,000; victim/offender relationship in solved homicides. (All the information for these graphs is contained in the handbook, which is available through the Berkeley Media Studies Group.)
Tearful Teen Gets 15 Years to Life for 1993 Slaying
John Henry Vasquez was 16 when he killed another teenager at a party over a momentary insult. At his sentencing Wednesday in Sacramento Superior Court, Vasquez pleaded for the family of the victim to forgive him. They were unforgiving.
“I made a mistake. There are no excuses,” said a tearful Vasquez, who was given a 15-years-to-life sentence for the second-degree murder of Robert Maisonet, 19.
Maisonet was shot dead in an apartment living room in the early morning of July 24, 1993. Vasquez is 2 1/2 years older now, but appearing in court with his round face and brass-rimmed glasses, he still looked like a boy. A boy dressed in jail-issued sweats.
Maisonet’s death is typical of a growing trend in California and across the nation. One of the record-breaking 97 homicides that occurred in Sacramento County in 1993, this one featured a victim and a killer who knew each other. That’s the case in 78.3 percent of all homicides nationally.
Their ages are also typical in California, where juvenile homicide rates have exceeded adult rates since 1989 and where almost 20 percent of alleged killers are 11 to 17 years old. Nationally, death by homicide ranks as the second leading killer among juveniles, right behind motor vehicle accidents.
“I know you said I will burn in hell. Please forgive me. That’s all I want is for you to forgive me,” Vasquez said in a quivering voice to the Maisonet family.
Though Maisonet’s girlfriend, Veronica Bursiga, and her sister, Ana Rodriguez, sat only 20 feet away, neither Vasquez’s words nor his tears touched the angry young women.
“You had no right to take the life of the father of my kids,” Bursiga said. “I am grateful the jury came back the way they did, but the ultimate price which you will pay will be something between you and God,” she shouted.
While Rodriguez was speaking, Vasquez turned away to avoid her glare. “Why did you take my brother?” Rodriguez yelled at Vasquez. “You still have your life. You can still see your family. All we can see is a headstone.”
According to testimony in August, Vasquez and two companions went to a party on 24th Avenue. At the door they were rebuked by party participants, including members of a rival street gang.
Vasquez and a friend returned to the party 15 minutes later, and as his friend pushed open the door, Vasquez pulled out a gun and fired multiple shots. Two bullets struck Maisonet, one piercing his aorta.
Three of every four homicides in California involve guns, 88 percent of which are handguns. Gang activity, for which Vasquez received a special sentence enhancement of at least 15 years in prison, also featured prominently in this case, as it does in one of every four homicides in California, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Nationwide, the figure is about six percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Defense Attorney James Carroll asked the judge to run the gang penalty concurrently so that Vasquez could be considered for release in about seven years.
Vasquez’ companion at the time of the shooting, “who was equally if not more culpable,” is now walking the streets as a result of his plea bargain in the case, Carroll said.
While in custody over the past 960 days, Vasquez continued his high school studies and now has a high school diploma, the defense attorney added.
Deputy District Attorney Natalie Luna said the jury convicted Vasquez as the gunman, no one else.
“He wants absolution. He wants people to forgive him and make things OK. He has no remorse,” Luna said as Vasquez’ family and friends sat in the audience.
Judge Jack Sapunor said he agreed with a study done in the case from the California Youth Authority that found Vasquez unsuitable for the treatment and rehabilitation of a youth correction facility.
“This offense occurred for no reason at all. In this gang lifestyle, this brief moment of humiliation became a catalyst for violence. This gang lifestyle leads to nowhere except prison, and Mr. Vasquez, that is where you are bound,” Sapunor said.
It will cost taxpayers $20,000 to $22,000 a year to keep Vasquez in prison in California, where juvenile incarceration is expected to increase more than 29 percent in the next decade. Risk factors identified with juvenile crime include failure in school, family problems, substance abuse, conduct problems, gang membership and gun possession.