Covering Community Gun Violence: Practical Guidance from #BGVR2019

IBGVR Philadelphia operations coordinator Alison Burdo made this presentation at Klein News Innovation Camp at Temple University in November 2019, one week after #BGVR2019: the inaugural Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit on community gun violence at WHYY in Philadelphia.

The Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting was launched earlier this year by Jim MacMillan, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. The project is intended to develop a set of best reporting practices for covering gun violence and investigate the hypothesis that changing the practice could prevent shootings and save lives. One crucial step in our plans was hosting the summit to gather a broad variety of stakeholders to share research, resources and other information. Here’s a summary of key takeaways gleaned from doctors, nurses, researchers, mothers who lost children to gun violence and journalists who are focused on refining media’s approach to the issue.

Lisa Dunn is the research editor for an innovative public radio collaborative called Guns & America. She suggested that journalists “get steeped in the research.” Dunn, along with Daniel Webster and Shannon Frattaroli of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, emphasized the need to understand the Dickey Amendment and its impact on researching gun violence, as well as Extreme Risk Protection Order legislation. Both organizations keep a list of pertinent studies on their websites – including recent evaluations of gun violence intervention efforts.

As Akoto Ofori-Atta of The Trace said: “It takes time to unlearn biases.” And those biases can be reinforced by the language the journalists choose when covering community gun violence. Throughout the summit, panelists explained why certain words and phrases should be avoided. For instance, referring to a neighborhood shooting as “urban gun violence” is often seen as a racist dog whistle. The preferred term is “community gun violence.” When describing a neighborhood as “gritty,” it is worth considering why you might be choosing that adjective over “up-and-coming.” Legislation is often characterized as “gun control,” but experts say that can set off alarms by implying a loss of autonomy. “Gun violence prevention laws” can be a better option. Frattaroli also encouraged journalists to stop saying “red flag laws” and use the actual legislative language of ERPO laws.

Michelle Kerr-Spry’s son Blaine was shot and killed 13 years ago. Among many valuable insights, she told reporters to “say their name.” Often the story’s narrative is focused on the suspected shooter and fails to identify the person who lost their life. This important piece of advice is one of many ways that journalists can better serve their audience and prevent additional harm to the victim’s loved ones.

Panelists repeatedly urged journalists to “complicate the narrative.” Stories on community gun violence rarely focus on victims, though it is more common when mass shootings occur. Community gun violence reporting more often relies on the police narrative, which can often be missing personal details about the victim and can generate fear because police are focused on solving the crime. Experts also suggested reporting more stories of resilience, for example covering community members who are trying to reduce gun violence or checking in on gun violence survivors and how they are adapting. Journalists should also make sure their narratives are rooted in evidence and they distinguish between mental illness and dangerous behaviors. Unqualified sources may casually refer to mental illness playing a role in the shooting or cite other debunked theories. Reporting without evidence risks perpetuating false narratives. 

Two of Renee McDonald’s nephews were shot to death. She underscored the need for reporters to better understand the people and communities affected by gun violence. Journalists who “parachute in” to cover community gun violence may unknowingly fall back on stereotypes because they are not familiar enough with the victim and the neighborhood. To have that robust knowledge takes time and effort but makes for more accurate and nuanced reporting and storytelling. As with any beat, developing relationships with community members is crucial to earning trust.

Philadelphia chief epidemiologist Raynard Washington encouraged journalists to “report with an intention” and consider how that intention will influence their work. For instance, if one intends to solve the crime, it is logical to include the police tip line in the story. If the intention is to keep the larger community informed, then it makes sense to include a list of available resources that offer support to victims’ loved ones.  

Trauma surgeon and researcher Dr. Jessica Beard called on news outlets to stop writing stories on community gun violence that amount to no more than a few sentences about when and where a shooting took place. Several presenters suggested that this practice can dehumanize victims and normalize the epidemic of gun violence.

Dr. Beard went on to compare two recent community gun violence incidents. Both had six victims and both occurred in North Philadelphia neighborhoods but each received very different levels of attention from the news media. A shooting that wounded six law enforcement officers was reported by local, regional and national outlets, with news organizations mirroring the huge police response and leading Dr. Beard to point out that coverage often seems to follow police perspective. A separate incident weeks later resulted in more serious injuries to civilian victims but appeared in just one national outlet and with no follow-up reporting on the victims’ conditions, the impact on the surrounding community or the status of the investigation, among other possible story angles.

The Initiative partnered with a communications researcher from Indiana University to gain a better understanding on gun violence survivors’ perspective on news media coverage. In September 2019, Jennifer Midberry and her team conducted focus groups with Philadelphians who had lost loved ones to gun violence. After a thorough evaluation of those conversations, she found several recurring themes. Participants said they want journalists to prioritize community voices, again pointing to the standard reliance on police narratives. They also asked journalists to do a better job contextualizing their coverage – reiterating the need to incorporate more evidence in stories – and to balance their reporting with other news, often positive, that is also happening in those same neighborhoods. One more theme from the focus groups was a desire for more empathy, which means showing restraint at times, for instance giving family members some time and space to grieve before knocking on their door for a follow-up story. 

What can you do in your newsroom to bring about demonstrable change? Develop your source network beyond institutional contacts – get out in the neighborhood and get to know block captains, pastors, long-time residents. Adopt recommended language. Stay up-to-date on the latest data – bookmark Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy. Create and incorporate resource lists in your coverage. We are proud to say several news outlets in Philadelphia took this step immediately following the summit, an easily attainable step to serve the communit

Prompting journalists to consider changing practices can be incredibly challenging and IBGVR Founder Jim MacMillan is working to bridge that divide. Here are some tips: First, try to build rapport by beginning with something you agree on – that way, each side sees they can relate to one another. Be sure to listen actively. Most of us are guilty of listening to speak next, just waiting for the other person to pause so we can interject. Be sure you are listening to listen, showing an active interest in what another person is saying is crucial to forming relationships. If the discussion weakens a long-held viewpoint, acknowledge that the other’s prior stance is valid given what they previously knew. And lastly, understand that evolution takes time. If your editor is willing to budge on one aspect of current reporting practices, be willing to meet them there instead of expecting radical change to happen immediately. 

This vital quote came from BGVR2019 panelist and Miami-based reporter Nadege Green. Much of the information shared in this presentation is already standard practice for reporting on mass shootings yet research shows they produce a small share of total victims. We are calling for journalists to use the same care and concern when covering all types of gun violence – as the loss of life and detriment to the surrounding neighborhood is present regardless of the category of the crime. 

Thanks to all the supporters, panelists, partners and attendees. We have good reason to believe this initiative will make a difference and we’re looking forward to continuing collaborations.