Jim MacMillan looks up from his phone, where he follows gun violence news nonstop

Jim MacMillan has seen firsthand how journalists cover crime and gun violence. For 17 years, he was one of them.

Starting in the 90s, MacMillan had an almost-two-decade run as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Daily News. He covered breaking news — which in this city often translates to chasing down grisly details surrounding shootings.

He can still remember one evening when, following a fatal attack, his colleagues literally ran after the family of the victim for an interview. Seeing their pain, it struck MacMillan that reporters anxious for a story might sometimes do more harm than good.

“I wasn’t mindful of that,” MacMillan said. “I’ve done things as grim as anybody.”

Now, the longtime journalist and educator is embarking on a project to right some of what he sees as the news industry’s collective wrongs.

MacMillan has been awarded the prestigious Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellowship. He’ll spend the next academic year at the University of Missouri, researching the intersection of journalism and gun violence.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been,” he said. “I think better gun violence reporting is going to save lives.”

Spreading best practices around the nation

Last year, Philadelphia saw 1,376 shootings. The 2018 total jumped 12 percent from the year prior, giving Philly a higher rate than in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, D.C. or Chicago.

Good journalism, MacMillan said, could make a difference.

He hopes to convince news organizations to break with the traditional way they’ve learned to cover gun violence. No more formulaic reports that only reveal the bare details of a shooting, which he says can often leave the reader feeling hopeless.

The fellowship begins in August, but MacMillan already has several ideas for how he’ll effect his mission.

First step is convening a community of stakeholders — family members who’ve lost someone to gun violence, plus physicians, outreach workers, police officers and journalists. Together, they’ll work to determine best practices for journalists who regularly write about gun violence in urban communities — not unlike the guidelines that already exist for things like suicide, poverty and LGBTQ life.

Next, he hopes to get newsrooms across the country on board, and have them implement these best practices. Then, using resources afforded to him by the Missouri School of Journalism, he’ll attempt to measure the impact of more thoughtful reporting.

“We need to consider the relationship between the reporting and the conflict,” he said. “I don’t know that we do that with gun violence.”

Giving back with ‘energy and time’ 

Past recipients of the RJI Fellowship have done some impressive work, including:

  • Jarrad Henderson, who helped documentary filmmakers figure out how to get paid for their work
  • Yong Volz, who created an oral history site to share the experiences of women working in newsrooms
  • Dan Archer, who used virtual reality to reconstruct the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

MacMillian’s self-chosen fellowship assignment won’t be easy, but he’s basically cut out for it. He founded the nonprofit Gun Crisis Reporting Project, and produced War News Radio at Swarthmore College. In 2005, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his documentation of combat inside Iraqi cities. At universities across the country, MacMillan has trained future reporters, pioneering courses in trauma, peace and solutions journalism.

And in Philadelphia, gun violence outreach workers have huge confidence in him.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight met MacMillan about 15 years ago, when she founded the national Mothers in Charge nonprofit following the murder of her son. In the time since, she’s met countless volunteers and activists. None, she said, carry the same dedication as MacMillan, who is on her organization’s board and helped set up its new website and comms strategy.

“That’s rare, to find someone who hasn’t been directly impacted by gun violence, and puts the kind of energy and time that he puts into it,” Johnson-Speight said. “He really gets down and gets involved in trying to make a difference.”

Scott Charles, a trauma outreach coordinator at Temple University Hospital, echoed that sentiment. “It’s so easy for this topic to get bogged down in partisan positions,” Charles said. “But he’s asking the tough questions. He’s keeping it on the forefront. I think of him as an invaluable voice.”

After MacMillan’s year in Missouri, he plans to return to Philadelphia — ideally implementing what he’s learned about urban gun violence directly into the community.

“With him getting this fellowship and being able to gain knowledge, and enhance what he already does, I’m excited about it,” Johnson-Speight said. “But I’m going to miss him!”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...