Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Episodic media coverage of gun violence can dehumanize victims and force them to relive their trauma while also undermining support for public health solutions, according to a new research study out of Temple University Hospital.

“This study is the first of its kind that explored the perspectives of firearm-injured people,” said Temple trauma surgeon Jessica Beard.

“At a time when we’re seeing this massive increase in gun violence, at a really crucial time in our city and our nation’s history,” Beard said, “they told us that the way their stories are told is causing more harm to them when they’re trying to recuperate from a traumatic event.”

Beard was lead author of the study, which involved interviews with 26 patients in one of the busiest trauma centers for shooting victims in Philadelphia. Citywide, an average of 40 people are injured by firearms each week.

How traditional breaking coverage can be damaging has been a recent topic of discussion in the news industry, thanks in part to the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, where Beard is director of research. But this study represents the first academic research demonstrating the potential harm.

One woman interviewed for the study said she was upset the media didn’t tell the story from her perspective. She would have preferred if a journalist had interviewed her, “instead of just writing it like I’m a nobody,” she said.

Another patient felt exploited by media coverage that he believed sent a harmful message to residents: “The city is violent. That’s what goes on. Expect this every day.” Instead, he wished journalists had used his shooting as an opportunity to push for solutions to gun violence.

People in the study also described concerns that media coverage was:

  • compromising their personal safety
  • causing harm to their reputation
  • creating a traumatic experience, especially when their shootings were reported inaccurately

The paper urged a rethinking of the media’s approach, eschewing episodic coverage — think “a barrage of bullets sprayed through X neighborhood” or “Y number of people were shot at a corner that turned deadly” — for the type of thematic reporting that can help audiences recognize which institutions and policies might be “responsible for entrenched social problems” that lead to gun violence.

It emphasized treating the crisis as a public health problem, with journalists and health practitioners working together on trauma-informed reporting that incorporates the perspectives of people with lived experience.

Avoiding breaking coverage to give gun violence victims a voice

Beard, who conducted the study along with collaborators from Lehigh University’s journalism department, the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school and PCGVR, said giving gun violence victims a voice in their own stories would give audiences a sense of “what it looks like to survive a firearm injury, the incredible barriers people have to surmount to do that, and the incredible resilience people show.”

Notably, none of the study participants was actually interviewed by a journalist about their injuries. Information was likely gleaned from police and often included inaccuracies that led to emotional distress.

“If firearm-injured people were able to share their experiences through interviews with journalists who were educated and experienced in trauma-informed practices, this could potentially provide a sense of empowerment and a restoration of feelings of control over their injuries and recovery,” the paper said.

In Philadelphia, whose television stations helped spread an exploitative approach to covering violence, media outlets have sought to improve the way they cover crime. NBC Philadelphia, for example, directs readers to resources for those affected by gun violence.

But among the two dozen people interviewed for the study, those whose injuries received media attention largely felt negative or conflicted about the coverage.

“Participants who made the news conveyed an impression of the impersonal tenor of reports, describing how these narratives feel dehumanizing, lack a sense of empathy, suggest the inevitability of firearm violence, and cause additional emotional pain for loved ones in the immediate aftermath of a shooting,” the paper said.

The researchers encouraged a style of reporting that several study participants identified themselves: follow-up reporting that includes interviews with gun violence victims about recovering from a firearm injury or otherwise dealing with the aftermath of an incident.

To address some of the potential harms of episodic reporting, the researchers also suggested omitting specific information from reports unless victims verify and approve its inclusion, as well as limiting the publication of graphic videos depicting gun violence.

The paper emphasized the need to modify reporting practices to minimize harm, suggesting the implementation of guidelines similar to those used in reporting around suicide or mass shootings.

Beard said the next steps in her research will include an analysis of television news reports of gun violence from 2021, the year the study was conducted, as well as whether race- and place-based disparities play a role in harmful reporting and whether there is a connection between harmful reporting and violence itself.