PCGVR's first Credible Messenger Film Festival was held at Awbury Arboretum in Germantown in August Credit: Kriston Jae Bethel for PGCVR

Newsroom veteran Jim MacMillan paused, his eyes scrolling the ceiling in thought as he combed through decades of experiences, memories, and tragedies. Finally, he reached a number: at least 2,000 — a rough estimate of how many shootings he reported on during his 17-year tenure as a photojournalist at The Philadelphia Daily News.

At the time, he believed this reporting functioned as a public service, and assisted, at least to some degree, in the awareness of gun violence and potential prevention of it.

But he increasingly began to question the way it was done.

“Sometimes it felt toxic and I wondered if it was harmful,” MacMillan said. “And sometimes we’d get complaints from the community.”

In 2019, he organized the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit to explore the idea. In 2020, he founded Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting (PCGVR).

The center focuses on helping people with lived experiences, by exploring the hypothesis that more ethical, impactful, and empathetic gun violence reporting can help prevent shootings and save lives.

This fall, PCGVR’s director of research introduced work in progress that begins to prove the idea. By Jessica Beard, who is also a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital, preliminary findings suggest that episodic news coverage of shootings can retraumatize survivors and their communities and possibly lead to more violence instead of less.

Beard, a Stoneleigh Foundation fellow, will participate in a virtual convening next Tuesday, Dec. 6, to discuss this research and the role of the media in general. (It’s free to attend, RSVP here.)

The event builds on work PCGVR has done over the past two years. The center identifies harmful reporting practices by engaging with the Philadelphia community, asking what best practices in gun violence journalism are, and looking at how they can be effectively implemented.

The center is small — its half-dozen current staff members are the most its had so far — but it’s built on community collaboration. That happens with individual journalists, with other organizations in the Philadelphia news ecosystem, with survivors, videographers, and activists, all to advance a type of journalism that cares about its subjects.

The work is supported by three primary programs:

Today, PCGVR has around 16 media partners, three community partners, nine funders, and 10 partner institutions. How did it grow so quickly? A few personal connections and a commitment to centering community.

Jim MacMillan, founder of PCGVR, in 2019 at the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit in Philadelphia Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

A journalist and a trauma surgeon connect to fight a crisis

In the years before this came to fruition, MacMillan taught a Temple University course called “Addressing Violence Through Solutions-Oriented Journalism”. Shortly after that, Temple University Hospital’s trauma outreach manager, Scott Charles, made a point to connect MacMillan with Beard.

“When this colleague heard me talking about solutions journalism to address gun violence,” MacMillan said, “and he heard Dr. Beard talking about public health intervention to address gun violence, he realized we were saying the same thing.”

As a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital, Beard encountered a shocking amount of victims of gun violence. She found herself wanting to advocate for her patients — wanting to help them avoid the hospital, instead of just after they arrived.

“I have training in public health, and what public health is about is basically using community level interventions to improve the health of people,” Beard said. “When it comes to firearm violence what public health means is how to prevent firearm violence before somebody gets shot.”

Treating U.S. gun violence as a public health crisis has gained more and more supporters in recent years. Experts in the field say that taking this approach — which includes gathering accurate data, collaborating on research, testing prevention strategies, and more — could be one of the best ways to calm the shooting epidemic disrupting American cities. And journalism plays a role, Beard believes.

“I see working to develop and support the most ethical, empathetic, and impactful reporting on gun violence as a public health intervention,” she said.

So the Temple University colleagues got to work, with the goal of reforming gun violence journalism for the better.

MacMillan landed a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. He organized the Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting to help inform a set of best practices specifically for journalists reporting on gun violence, and held a summit at WHYY in Philadelphia in 2019, with nearly 250 doctors, nurses, researchers, journalists, editors, and people affected by gun violence in attendance. Out of this came PCGVR.

At a recent PCGVR workshop, teams proposed mandatory trauma-informed trainings for journalists to improve interviews with gun violence survivors Credit: Beatrice Forman / Billy Penn

Placing community at the center

One of PCGVR’s central efforts, the Credible Messenger Reporting Project runs with the help of community manager Maxayn Gooden, who uses her own experience with gun violence to empower fellow victims and co-victims.

The project works like this: With financial support from the center, community members with lived experience with gun violence are paired with professional journalists, so they can learn from each other and leverage their combined authority to produce and distribute news reports. These reports have been everything from longer-form documentaries, articles, or video interviews.

Gooden, who published her own piece as part of the program in June 2021, now advises and assists credible messengers seeking to publish their stories. After her son was shot and killed, she found herself healing by helping others, and sees this as a way to continue that work.

“I think it helps heal a community by giving them the space to do these projects. I think it helps to educate journalists and reporters,” Gooden said, noting that once published online, the pieces can reach audiences all over the nation and world. “So people who have never experienced gun violence are able to see what happens in the inner city.”

Her biggest hope is that the Credible Messenger Reporting Project is picked up in other cities, so other communities feel empowered and begin healing from the tragedy gun violence can inflict.

Oronde McClain, a survivor of gun violence and project participant who published his own piece in May, is now working with PCGVR as the credible messenger newsroom liaison. He embraces his role as a crucial link between the neighborhood and the news. He works with journalists and news organizations in Philadelphia to help inform and develop relationships with the center, introduce the work of the center, and identify possible collaborations.

“I feel like me talking to the newsrooms has a big impact because they’re not talking to a regular person — they’re talking to a survivor that’s been through 20+ years of struggle,” McClain said. “Nothing I know is research, this is real life.”

McClain believes newsrooms are starting to listen and recognize that their reporting practices can be triggering for victims, provoke fear in communities, and perpetuate stereotypes about victims and survivors.

The center’s work is supported by interns like Shannon Hodges, who believes more organizations should focus on victims.

Hodges, a high-schooler, said she’s motivated by a desire to hear other people’s stories and lift up their voices, which is “something that the Credible Messenger Reporting Project is allowing to happen.” Her work has been primarily in tandem with Gooden’s, and they have set out to interview people involved in Credible Messenger Reporting Projects and release podcast episodes as part of a series called “Dear Gun Violence.”

PCGVR’s Oronde McClain shows the documentary he made at the Credible Messenger Film Festival Credit: Kriston Jae Bethel for PCGVR

Continuing the push to improve journalism

Following its two-year anniversary, what’s next for PCGVR?

With 10 Credible Messenger pieces released and more to come, MacMillan and team show no sign of slowing down. People in cities across the country have expressed interest in replicating the Credible Messenger Project, giving agency back to gun violence victims so they can tell their own stories, informed by their lived experiences.

This is a productive shift from how gun violence is typically covered, according to Beard.

“Most violence reporting is focused on a specific event, episodic reporting, and most if it is framed from the lens of law enforcement, a crime lens,” the trauma surgeon said. “But nobody has ever talked to people who’ve actually been shot about what the potential harms of this reporting style may be.”

The work can be triggering, time consuming, and without immediate result; it may not adhere to a 9-5 schedule.

But MacMillan stays motivated. The long hours are worth it, he said, because of “the belief, the sense, the confidence, that we’re going to have a positive impact.”