1. Earn your place in the community
Nothing is more clear than the need and responsibility of journalists to do the hard work of earning trust in impacted communities.
Reporters should not simply parachute into neighborhoods with no preexisting relationships, take what is needed, and disappear with no plans to return. Be kind, gentle, and understanding; don’t just think about getting the story.
Get to know people away from community violence. Be present, even when not reporting. Return to the community regularly. Find and share the wonderful things taking place in a neighborhood, outside of the negative. Tell stories of resilience. Create hope.
Respect the community. Remember they don’t know you and they don’t owe the media anything.
2. Remember who and what is important
Put community narratives first. Center stories around victims — and humanize them.
Don’t default to information provided by police officials or anyone else, especially those who wield power or hold a vested self-interest in portraying a particular narrative. Remember that official information isn’t always accurate.
Explore a full spectrum of experts who can shed light on the issue of gun violence, from public health and epidemiology to criminology, communications, and more. Some experts may not have an official title, such as block captains, activists, longtime community members, and impacted families.
Don’t focus on criminal records without a good reason, and don’t judge victims. When victims are young, include the voices and perspectives of young people.
Begin by taking a look in the mirror. Recognize who you are, own your biases, and do the work to unlearn them.
3. Recognize the complexity of the topic
Complicate the narrative!
Complexity makes people more curious. Try to make people think, rather than telling them what to think.
Balance the need to inform your audience with the goal of minimizing traumatic content. Avoiding sensationalized, shallow, repetitive, episodic reporting is crucial. These reports can spread fear and perpetuate stereotypes.
Recognize that living with complex social, behavioral, economic, and community circumstances can perpetuate violence.
Remember that good people make poor choices.
Facts add richness and hope, but staying current with trends and research takes effort. Know the difference between correlation and causation in research findings, and consider the author’s degree of confidence before endorsing a study.
Reject the idea that anything done to try and stop gun violence is beneficial. When reporting on a response to the problem, consider if the reporting might risk doing more harm than good or if it might create other unintended consequences.
4. Disrupt misconceptions
Knowing what is widely believed but false is important. Provide information to dispute misinformation.
There is little consensus on the definition of a “mass shooting.”
Most gun deaths are suicides. The second highest category of gun-related death is interpersonal violence, and mass shootings ranks third. Surveys show most news consumers think the opposite is true.
Outbreaks of community gun violence can place the same strain on healthcare systems as a mass shooting but seldom receive the same amount of news coverage.
Learn the difference between mental illness and dangerous behaviors. The latter may lead to violence while people with mental illness are more likely to be victims.
5. Don’t cover; engage!
Spend time going to events, visiting places of worship and attending support groups. Learn as much as possible about a neighborhood and the people who live there.
Familiar faces can be more comforting to families and communities in grief.
Give people time to grieve before approaching them following an incident of gun violence.
Reach out and encourage communities to participate in the reporting process.
Convey how this will result in better reporting and bring more attention to the stories they want told.
6. Report with intention
Give every story the weight it deserves.
Consider the impact of your reporting. Could it lead to less violence or might it risk inciting more? Be mindful of how the reporting may impact survivors, families, and communities affected by gun violence.
Some families may want you to help solve the crime. Put pressure on the police to do more and bring perpetrators of gun violence to justice.
Learn about the long-term effects of trauma, especially on children.
When possible, involve the local community in the fact-checking process. Better stories happen when working together.
7. Watch your language
Inaccurate terminology can dilute reader confidence in your reporting.
Adjectives including “gritty” or “urban” can be perceived as racist code words.
Consider the implications of suggesting someone was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Recognize that “police-involved shooting” is sterile official terminology.
To avoid polarization, don’t say “gun control” when you mean “gun violence prevention.”
Some terms may also perpetuate stereotypes. “Extreme risk protection orders” can seem wordier than “red flag laws, but using the latter term can inadvertently assign responsibility to people with mental illness.
If you’re covering gun violence, learn about guns.
Covering traumatic events will lead to exceptional challenges and responsibilities. Journalists must attend to self-care and the well being of our colleagues and those in our personal networks. Look to resources such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Some individuals or organizations may find a few takeaways in this guide while others may find a great deal of new information. Consider developing a policy for covering gun violence and an implementation strategy in your own newsroom, whether it calls for iterative change or sweeping overhauls.
If an overhaul of a newsroom is not realistic, it is still possible to make changes to your reporting approach on an individual level.
Challenge your editors. Challenge your colleagues. Dig in with your time, effort, and attention.
Researchers and clinicians have been addressing violence as a public health issue since the 1980s and journalists soon followed, even publishing reports and holding workshops, but old crime coverage traditions often still prevail.
The time is now.
Innovators are often met with adversaries, sometimes acting on the best of intentions but expressing a visceral objection to change. Listen to them, seek common ground, and open up conversations.
This topic can also bring out those who wish to antagonize and inflame the conversation online by posting or sharing disruptive and offensive content. Spot the rhetoric and watch out for false equivalency, both sides-ism, denialism, and disinformation.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to disengage.
We’re making every effort to observe and measure impact. Further research, including an analysis of the state of gun violence, will be insightful.
Best practices may seem to conflict with a current business model, with breaking news and traditional crime reporting being the current norm, but that need not be the case moving forward.
We are working on newsroom training modules and future events. The goal is to fund further research and new reporting fellowships, as well as other training opportunities.
About this Guide
What if changing the way journalists report on gun violence could not only cover what is happening but actually prevent shootings and save lives?
The Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting was created to identify and advance best practices for journalists and to explore the idea that new methods can reduce violence.
While the Initiative and its partners are concerned with the full spectrum of gun violence, this guide primarily addresses community gun violence or the kind of shootings most common in American cities. Future projects will focus more directly on related issues including gun suicides, domestic violence with guns, unintentional shootings and more.
This guide has been informed by experts including journalists who cover gun violence locally and nationally, researchers from relevant fields and community representatives with deep personal experience on the issue. Those who participated in events or informed this guide in some way also include medical students, high school journalism students, first responders, government officials, advocacy groups, a former mayor and a Hollywood producer.
The contents of this guide are based not only on the presenters and attendees at our events but also on related news coverage and social media conversations, with extra emphasis placed on themes and elements voiced more frequently and most vehemently across participating communities, including research our findings and survey results.
At the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit, attendees checked in from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as well as from Chicago, Orlando, Boston, and other locations. Journalists from The Associated Press, Newsy, SB Nation, as well as from smaller cities such as Allentown and Flint.
While the primary objective of the Initiative is gun violence prevention, we also learned about the needs of people and communities impacted and how journalists and news organizations can serve them better.
Another one of our goals is to learn more about journalists who play some role covering gun violence, including those who cover breaking news, criminal courts, policy, legislation, and related social issues. We want to know who else has a hand in the process of reporting on gun violence, from assignment editors to headline writers, visual journalists and whomever we have not yet imagined.
The Initiative respects that all journalists and new organizations are unique, and that some might find this guidance more helpful than others. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. So, we invite your feedback and this work moves forward.
The Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting was launched by Jim MacMillan, a residential fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Jim MacMillan previously spent 17 years with the Philadelphia Daily News and photographed the war in Iraq for the Associated Press, earning a Pulitzer Prize and The Bayeaux Prize for War Correspondents. He has taught journalism at the University of Missouri, NYU, Swarthmore College and Temple and Tufts Universities.
The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute engages media professionals, scholars and other citizens in programs aimed at strengthening journalism in the service of democracy. RJI generates and tests new techniques and new thinking that promise to improve journalism.