A recent conference in Philadelphia had a singular goal to help journalists find more effective ways to report on gun violence. This is a summary of what they learned.
The Neiman Report list of 10 useful takeaways included:
- 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.