In Philadelphia, being a trauma surgeon means being an expert on what bullets do to bodies.
Every night that Dr. Jessica Beard is on call at Temple University Hospital, she treats a gun-injured patient. “And that’s Every. Single. Night,” she said. “Many nights I have two, three, four patients that all rely on my team for lifesaving care.”
What can journalists do to report more effectively and compassionately on gun violence, applying public health model ideas to reporting?
“When you think about it, it’s pretty sickening that my profession even exists—that I and my colleagues have to respond day in and day out to an entirely preventable disease, a disease that barely exists in other countries, a disease that plagues the most vulnerable members of our society, causing physical and emotional scars that are lifelong.”
Yet, when Beard searches for news stories about the person whose life she just helped save—or whose life she and her team couldn’t save—she sometimes can’t find a word. Nothing to mark the heroic struggle of three back-to-back surgeries or the death she has just witnessed.
Or she finds something painfully insubstantial.
It’s everywhere: the crime “brief”—that staple of American journalism—that gives one or two sentences of attention to the shooting death of a human being on some street, or in a car, or in a park.
It’s harmful and dehumanizes victims of gun violence, Beard says. Sometimes, it stereotypes.
That kind of coverage leads to community disengagement because the people most directly impacted don’t see anything in the mainstream news that feels relevant to their experience.
So what can journalists do to report more effectively and compassionately on gun violence, applying “public health model” ideas to reporting and re-engage their communities?
That was the subject of the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit, a one-day conference at public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia this month. It brought together reporters, trauma surgeons, representatives of NGOs, researchers and survivors—the mothers and aunts of young black men who die with horrifying regularity in Philadelphia. It was an unusually powerful melding of research and practice, and it produced action items for journalists and newsrooms struggling to find the most constructive ways to report on gun violence, which is increasing in major U.S. cities.
Here are 10 of them:
- Don’t single-source that shooting story through law enforcement. Police are one source of information about the shooting; they should not be the only one. Otherwise, you end up with a story that sounds like this: “Young Black Male killed in (this place) on (date). Call police if you have tips.” Center the narrative with the victim, the survivors, friends, and people in the neighborhood most affected, even if you have to wait to do it.
- Do the work to develop trusting relationships in the communities most affected. You may be producing that single-source law-enforcement narrative because you haven’t spent the time developing relationships. “The community voices are the hardest to get, but they’re most important,” said Nadege Green, a reporter for WLRN public radio in Miami. “See how people are doing before you stick a mic in their face.” Go to gatherings and don’t ask for anything, she advised. Green said she has built relationships with pastors, funeral directors, and others in the community whose names won’t necessarily turn up in a Google search. Those relationships have helped her reach families and do richer stories. Jonathan Bullington, an investigative reporter for the Courier Journal in Louisville, had time to build trust after he received an Annenberg grant to report on childhood trauma and gun violence in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New Orleans. He and a reporting partner used part of the money to rent an office in the neighborhood. “We spent a month with no recorders and no notebooks and introduced ourselves to everyone in the community,” he said. The reporters asked, How have other [journalists] got this wrong in the past? What would you like to see? Who else should we be talking to?
- If you’re going to try to use social media to connect with people, think carefully about what you’re asking for and how you’re asking. Akoto Ofori-Atta, managing editor of The Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering the gun violence crisis in the U.S., wished she’d thought through more carefully a callout to people who’ve survived being struck by a bullet. Saying “tell us your story” or “we want to find…” assumes that people who don’t know you will want to talk about issues as personal as health care, finances, and facing death, she said.
- Watch your language. Words like “urban” attached to violence, “gritty” for a neighborhood, “gang-related” (when it’s not clear) are often loaded, even “dog whistles.” Call a neighborhood a “war zone” and you’re negating the reality that this is a place where people live, work, raise children and experience joy. Language that casually criminalizes the victim is common in shooting stories. Again, it’s too easy to turn the narrative over to law enforcement. Meanwhile, when it’s a cop who has fired the gun, journalists too often euphemize by calling it an “officer-involved shooting”—blurring the facts of the incident.
- Examine your reporting priorities and what gets the most attention in time and story play. “There’s a hierarchy of death that we perpetuate in the media,” Green said. That’s how the shooting of a 10-year-old gets huge attention while that of an older person might get barely a mention, or none at all. Same goes for journalists’ approach to mass shootings. While the single-event shooting with multiple deaths in a school gets wall-to-wall cable news coverage and draws national media attention, Philadelphia—and other cities—see startling numbers of clustered shootings in which four or more firearm-injured patients are brought to a single hospital within 15 minutes of each other. Beard, the trauma surgeon, co-authored a study on these neighborhood mass shootings and found that Philadelphia had one about every three months. Yet news reports did not reflect this grim reality or the impact and stresses it puts on neighborhoods and trauma units.
- Look for stories about how people take action. People rearrange their lives around everyday gun violence and chronic trauma, Green, the Miami reporter, noted. A story about the landlord who won’t retrofit the house for a gunshot victim’s wheelchair highlights a problem, as does a story about how people on Medicaid who need mental health treatment have to wait months. “Somehow, we don’t elevate, amplify and point out the holes” for shooting survivors, she said. Whose community we see humanity in through our stories can influence how resources are allocated. In other words, pay attention to your attention. But look for the positive. Guardian reporter Abené Clayton, who is based in Oakland, California, says the dominant narrative is one that suggests helplessness and complacency—that people are doing nothing. Clayton wrote a story about a woman who held active shooter drills for kids in her apartment in Richmond, California, which had frequent street shootings. “It just shows that people are doing something in the communities where these things are happening,” she said. “They’re not lazy, helpless, and complacent.”
- Do more stories about survivors. Ninety percent of people who are shot survive. But stories about them and what survival entails—what it looks like—are relatively rare.
- Don’t link gun violence and “mental health.” If all mental illness could be cured overnight, the United States would see about a 4 percent reduction in gun violence, according to public health research. The evidence just doesn’t back up the link that is so quickly and easily made, usually right after a mass shooting. Instead, researchers see evidence that allowing law enforcement to take guns away from people who are behaving dangerously could be effective, especially in reducing suicide. (In 2017, nearly 40,000 people died by gun, 60 percent by suicide and 37 percent in homicide.) Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have approved some type of Extreme Risk Protection Order law in place, and more states are considering this intervention. Hint: Don’t call them “red flag” laws, which perpetuates the mythical link of mental illness and gun violence.
- Know guns, know gun owners, know your state’s licensing laws. Journalists routinely demonstrate a low understanding of guns, and it shows when we use terms like “assault weapon” (it’s assault-style) and don’t understand what the terms “automatic” and “semi-automatic” mean (the people at Guns and America can probably help). But it’s also important to be conscious of your biases about who owns a gun. News stories sometimes reflect an acceptance of guns as a point of culture for some people and not others. Be as diligent about finding out where someone got a gun to shoot a young, black man as you would to find out about a gun used to shoot a police officer.
- When solutions get pitched, look for the evidence of success. It’s a credo of the solutions journalism movement that stories about approaches to solving seemingly intractable problems should critically analyze the evidence of their success and acknowledge failures. Caterina Roman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We have to get away from the idea that anything we do in high-violence neighborhoods is good,” she said. Look for the data, talk to researchers, and don’t become a cheerleader for some untested (or poorly tested) intervention just because someone has invited you to a news conference to announce it. Ask, what works? And, why aren’t we doing what works?
It’s a challenge, doing it right. Building trust, digging deep, gathering data, and cultivating relationships with researchers, community activists, trauma surgeons, and survivors all take time, a resource that is in shorter supply than ever in many newsrooms. But even in breaking news situations, thoughtful modifications can have a big impact. For example, Renée McDonald, the aunt of two young men who died in shootings, asked reporters to carefully consider whether the purpose of their questions is to get at the truth, or to create a “show.”
And remember resources. Michelle Kerr-Spry, the mother of a shooting victim, noted that stories about her son’s death made no mention of resources for survivors, like her, who wonder each day how they can go on living. “Nothing in the stories gave me any resources to teach me how to live,” she said. “We don’t know how to live when our children have been murdered.”
Jim MacMillan, a fellow in residence at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri who organized the summit, knows that the “elephant in the room” is how to do better reporting in newsrooms that are smaller than ever and reporters have less time than ever. “The goal of this event was to identify best practices so the impediments of deadlines and other responsibilities might conflict with best practices,” he said. “Maybe that’s the next-level conversation.”
Isn’t the shooting brief an essential part of a local news report?
Yes, and no. What if it looked different from day one? Kerr-Spry kept asking a question when the summit was over: Why don’t news stories about shootings include resources the way stories about suicide and sexual and domestic violence often do?
The answer was, why not?
Within days, the Philadelphia news site Billy Penn had produced a list of resources and posted it on its site. Resolve Philadelphia, a nonprofit collaborative, refined it.
Then, last weekend, in Philly, two men were killed and five people were injured in a series of shootings. The story the next morning on NBC-10 in Philadelphia included the resources.
“It doesn’t prevent violence but it shows real outcomes in bringing journalists and the community together,” MacMillan said. “One suggestion from one panelist might potentially change the industry.”
The Better Gun Violence Reporting summit was organized by Jim MacMillan with support from the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Lenfest Institute, The Trace, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Action Tank, Datalytics, and WHYY. Its framework was the public health model of gun violence, which means that the root causes, the data and solutions were at the center of the conversation.