Skyline as seen from a fishing pier along Bartram's Mile in Southwest Philly. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Is Philadelphia a safe city to live in and visit? You wouldn’t think so by looking at many news headlines, like Axios Philly’s recent coverage touting the results of a new Gallup poll about perceived notions of safety for 16 U.S. cities. 

According to the poll, fewer than half of people (47%) who’ve visited Philly — or just heard of it — perceive it as safe, while 50% said they have negative perceptions. “Philadelphia ranks near bottom of safety poll,” reads the headline.

The key word here is “perception.”

Year-to-date homicides and shootings in the city have fallen more than 20% since last year. Violent crime is also down, with aggravated assaults with a gun down 10% vs. last year and armed robberies down 12% — as pointed out by Axios just two weeks before its post about the perceived safety survey. 

Those gains certainly don’t erase the traumatic impact of gun violence on Philadelphians and communities across the U.S. However, media narratives play an outsize role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes instead of examining solutions. Emphasizing perceived safety over actual lived experiences centers outsiders, not community members. 

Such mainstream reporting tactics — many developed from exploitative practices pioneered by Philadelphia TV stations — also can dehumanize and endanger victims, inflict additional trauma, and undermine support for public health efforts and solutions, studies and comments show.

Last year, West Philly and Kensington residents told Billy Penn that constant coverage of individual shootings and the homicide rate not only breeds disillusionment, but also ignores grassroots anti-violence efforts that work to build trust where law enforcement and outside groups see statistics. 

West Philly residents at a Billy Penn community conversation about anti-violence funding in August 2021 (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Frontline Dads founder Reuben Jones, whose organization provides mentorship, educational and cultural programs, and prevention and intervention services, discussed this with The Trace in April. 

“These young guys inherited a community depleted of resources — neglected since the ‘60s, redlined since the ‘30s,” Jones told the gun violence-focused news outlet.

“It’s easy to say the 22nd District got the most juvenile shootings, but let’s count how many rec centers we got open for them. How many jobs do we have for them? How many safe havens?” added Frontline Dads success coach Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, 53, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning podcast detailing his life.

Similarly, the founders of Philly Truce are among the local groups not waiting around for help. Founded in 2020 by friends Mazzie Casher and Stephen Pickens, the volunteer group organizes peace patrols, sends mediators to de-escalate disputes, and host a summer program for kids living with the impact of gun violence on friends, family, and themselves. They also have an app. 

Pickens, who works as a firefighter, recently told Canada’s Globe and Mail he believes much of the current violence is based around social-media feuding, which enables rivalries to escalate and grudges to grow. “They talk about ‘opps,’ or their opposition. Some young people look for another team to go to war with,” he says.

There isn’t yet firm research showing social media shareability is driving teen violence, but in many ways the idea is similar to the news media ecosystem that prizes quick-hit articles designed to shock people into sharing them, exacerbating fear and prejudice instead of providing insight. 

There IS research showing this kind of news coverage can cause more harm than good.

Temple trauma surgeon Jessica Beard, who is also director of research at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting (PCGVR), was the lead author of a first-of-its-kind academic study that explored the perspectives of firearm-injured people. Published in January, the study recommends using trauma-informed reporting practices not just for mass shootings or suicides, but for all gun violence coverage. 

“If you constantly consume episodic coverage on firearm injury, [for example] you’re always going to be thinking of it as a crime problem,” Beard said during a 2022 panel with local journalists. “You won’t know what the solutions are.”

Back to the initial Gallup poll: Dallas came out shining, with 74% of respondents saying they consider it safe. Yet several reports suggest Dallas either has a higher per capita homicide rate than Philadelphia, or at least one that’s very close.

And Seattle’s perceived safety compared to Philly — 63% think it’s safe — is also questionable. Data collected by the Council on Criminal Justice shows an increase in year-over-year homicides in the West Coast city. Then there’s also the fact that nationwide data shows a decline in homicide rates across the country this year.

Whose data rules? Whose feedback is highlighted and most accurate? And if it’s all about perception, how did highlighting that survey in Philly local news help?

Heather Chin is Billy Penn's deputy editor. She previously was a digital producer at the Inquirer and an editor at outlets both print and digital — from national breaking news service Flipboard to hyperlocal...