An ominously-lit football field overlaid with all-caps words highlighting “CONTINUING COVERAGE” — right next to an image of target crosshairs, as if one was looking through the scope on a gun.
This imagery landed on televisions across the Delaware Valley after a 14-year-old was killed and four other teenagers were injured in a shooting near Roxborough High School after a football scrimmage between the Northwest Philly school and two other teams.
Some viewers found it unsettling, calling it out as harmful.
“Hey @CBSPhiladelphia you have to be kidding me with this graphic,” wrote Twitter user @sari_ramirez. “A kid died. This isn’t a video game.”
Graphics packages can frequently change, CBS Philly Vice President of News Kathleen Gerrow told Billy Penn. She said the channel phased out the tweeted image before noon on Wednesday.
Asked if she wanted to respond directly to criticism of the graphic, Gerrow declined.
The medium of broadcast news often lends itself to sensationalism, said Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who’s covered social justice and race-based equity issues. That can be true whether a station’s approach is “directly sensationalistic or radiates sensationalism, irrespective of efforts to perhaps be sensitive,” he said.
“Quite frankly, it appears that they’re trying to get the most out of this in terms of ratings and viewers,” Washington said about the CBS3 graphic. “Bottom line, they’re hyping this stuff up, and that’s unfortunate.”
Horrifying as the post-scrimmage shooting was, it was far from an isolated incident. Philadelphia leaders and community members are striving to find a way out of the crisis. More than four dozen people were shot in Philly over the past week, according to data published by the City Controller’s Office. At least 10 were teenagers or children.
Coverage of gun violence — particularly, how to do it responsibly and sensitively — has become a much-discussed topic in the news industry.
“You’d think a child’s death would elicit the most dignified treatment of a story you could think of,” wrote Aubery Nagle, director of practice change at Resolve Philadelphia, commenting on the Twitter post of the graphic. “A gun scope overlaid on football grass is video game visuals. Cut it out.”
Several local reporters, editors, researchers, and advocates gathered in Northwest Philly Wednesday for the Better Gun Violence Reporting Workshop. Billy Penn was in attendance, and will publish takeaways soon, but at heart the prescheduled conference was convened to address exactly the situation showcased by Channel 3’s treatment of the Roxborough shooting.
The modern local news broadcast format was born in Philadelphia, and the medium is one that’s been criticized as harmful for reducing many neighborhoods and communities — frequently made up of people of color — to the violence that occurs there.
The hype isn’t the only problem with media coverage of gun violence, though — a big issue is the material that’s missing from regular programming, said Washington, of Temple.
Though there’s lots of coverage of individual shootings when they happened, underlying causes of violence aren’t adequately addressed in everyday coverage, he said. That includes issues like educational disparities, poverty, and lack of employment opportunities amongst communities experiencing violence, he said, or political inaction on the part of government leaders.
That’s not to say that media outlets are responsible for all of society’s problems, he added. But providing context is important, and the media can serve as a watchdog on these issues.
“So much of this coverage is episodic when the issues are endemic,” Washington said. “When you just take a little piece here and a little piece there, and you don’t talk about the connective tissue, you’re doing a disservice.”