What if we let Philadelphians dictate how local newsrooms approached coverage of gun violence?
That was the big question at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting‘s Better Gun Violence Reporting workshop last week. Reporters across the city’s broadcast and radio stations joined anti-violence researchers and advocates at Germantown’s Wyck House for a day of rethinking the crime beat.
The workshop was inspired by a forthcoming paper from PCGVR research director and Temple Hospital trauma surgeon Jessica Beard. It found that episodic, close-ended coverage of individual shootings can dehumanize and isolate survivors.
While journalists confronted how their work can retraumatize survivors and perpetuate community disinvestment, the non-journalists in the room discovered something else: Some reporters actually care.
“Sometimes, it feels like journalists just want to get the story, right?” said Shameka Sawyer, who lost her brother to gun violence in June, and made a film about him as part of the 5 Shorts Project. “It doesn’t necessarily feel like there is a lot of care for the victims going through this trauma.”
But, Sawyer said, “being here today showed me that’s not the case.”
Moderated by Philadelphia magazine editor-at-large Ernest Owens, the day began with discussions on journalism and trauma, plus words from PCGVR’s Maxayn Gooden and Oronde McClain about how the reporting process can isolate survivors and co-survivors of gun violence. After a keynote speech from Cheryl Thompson-Morton, the director of the Black Media Initiative at the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark School of Graduate Journalism, attendees were challenged to prototype a solution to improve gun violence reporting.
What did we come up with? Interventions small and large that would center communities, build trust, and — eventually — end the crime beat completely.
The workshop operated under Chatham House rules, which is a fancy way of saying this event was a special kind of off-the-record: Attendees are free to publish what they learned, so long as nothing is attributed to any person or organization. Don’t worry, Billy Penn got permission to speak with some attendees and speakers on the record.
“Past conversations have either been super tense or very performative and defensive,” Owens told Billy Penn. “A lot of people will come to these conversations feeling like they have to defend their reputation … they’re coming in with all of these shields and guards. What has been great about [this workshop] is that people have let go of that.
How else did the workshop encourage Philadelphia to reimagine its coverage of gun violence? Here are three takeaways.
Systemic issues get buried by snappy coverage from the scene
The keynote from Morton-Thompson, of the Black Media Initiative, focused on the fallout from how television news covers shootings, with bite-sized snapshots of individual incidents.
The now-common Eyewitness News and Action News formats originated in Philadelphia, with coverage of shootings straight from the scene that boosted ratings and incentivized stations to lead broadcasts with crime. The aftershocks ripple beyond immediate victims, desentizing both reporters and viewers from the systemic causes of gun violence — like high poverty rates, a history of neighborhood disinvestment, and lack of gainful employment opportunities.
Morton-Thompson argued this episodic format creates a negative feedback loop.
“Coverage validates systems that oppress people,” Morton-Thompson said. “If reporting basically confirms that people of color are criminals, it justifies having systems in place that continue to marginalize them.”
Participants discussed whether the systems Philadelphia is up against are larger than a few stations constantly churning out what can be considered harmful coverage. When Morton-Thompson asked the crowd to think about why crime reporting stays the same, some pointed to an inherent bias to police authority and how viewers are naturally drawn to bad news, while others pointed out breakdowns in how journalists are trained and how newsrooms operate.
“The structure of a newsroom doesn’t lend itself to solutions reporting on anything, let alone gun violence in a city where it happens all day everyday,” one participant noted.
Morton-Thompson recommended reporters rethink their incentives for covering gun violence: Is it for clicks, or for the community?
After getting traumatized, no wonder survivors think reporters don’t care
When McClain, now newsroom liaison for PCGVR’s Credible Messenger Project, survived a shooting at the age of 10, he spent weeks in a coma, unaware of what had happened to him. He ultimately learned the details from a news package. It triggered his first seizure.
“I was mad at the world because of the media,” McClain told the crowd. “The media doesn’t understand what trauma is when a victim gets shot.”
Reporting from the scene of a shooting can immediately retraumatize victims and co-victims, forcing them into notoriety just as they’re processing pain and loss.
Both McClain and Gooden, who manages PCGVR’s credible messengers, said a reporters’ need for immediacy can remove empathy from the interview process, especially when it comes to a victim’s parents. Often among the first sources a reporter contacts to understand the context of a shooting, Gooden said these co-survivors need space to breathe — and figure out how they want their child’s life depicted.
“Most crime victims are thrust, often unwillingly, into a limelight they do not seek and do not enjoy solely because of the crime committed against them,” Morton-Thompson said during her keynote, where she argued that gun violence survivors undergo three assaults: one from the perpetrator, one from the criminal justice system, and one “at the hands of the news media.”
When Gooden lost her son to gun violence ahead of his graduation from Boys’ Latin in 2017, she said she couldn’t talk to the press at first, despite their persistence.
“I understand we need to get the story out so we can find the killer, but I was still trying to comprehend,” said Gooden, who ended up directing reporters to her son’s high school instead.
Even now, five years later, Gooden says certain reporting tropes can retraumatize her, like a reliance on gratuitous details. When she saw reporters rehashing gory details of how a child was killed after the football scrimmage near Roxborough High School, she thought about the mother.
“Not only has she suffered a loss, but now she has to live with the image of someone standing over her child and continuously shooting,” Gooden told Billy Penn. “Her family is going to live with that image, and it didn’t need to be added to an article.”
Maxayn offered some tips to reporters who still need to cover each individual shooting: Try to find another source who can speak to the victim’s life outside of the parents, and consider following up months after the incident, when you can report on how they’ve decided to honor their child’s legacy.
There’s no one-size fits all solution, but it starts with engaging communities
Later in the day, participants split into teams to prototype solutions for compassionate reporting on gun violence.
Most interesting: Despite following the same criteria — something easy to implement, yet game changing — nearly every team had a different answer. All were steeped in community engagement.
One team suggested an encrypted messaging service and event calendar where block captains could share news tips and community events for reporters looking to build connections in a new neighborhood.
Another developed a brick-and-mortar community center for newsrooms to lead workshops on citizen journalism (Play-doh model of the space included).
A third team created a TV segment called “Where Ya At?” where high school students would take over the airwaves to uncover the good news happening in their communities.
Some of the less flashy ideas were a Rotten Tomatoes-esque website where readers could rate reporters on how well they covered their gun violence; crowdsourced resource guides; and trauma-informed trainings.
The clear takeaway was that community members need to be involved at both ends of the reporting process.
“Our reporting can help or heal communities,” Morton-Thompson said. “To be a part of the solution, we have to change our incentives … to reward equipping those most impacted by gun violence with what they need to live their lives safely.”