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Changing the Way We Talk About Gun Violence

Jennifer Midberry and a team of scholars, including several Temple researchers, are studying media coverage of gun violence and learning about the impact it has on the audience and community at-large.

This fall brings a feeling of normalcy to campus after so many semesters upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, Temple community members have returned in the midst of another epidemic plaguing our nation and city: gun violence. It’s an issue that feels personal after the murder of political science major Samuel Collington during a robbery close to campus last year. 

With notifications about shootings sent out regularly through TUalerts, new safety measures being implemented across the university, and headlines about firearm incidents continually leading news reports, this is something that will inevitably be on students’ minds this year. Like many pressing social issues, the rising rates of national and local gun violence will be relevant to class discussions in various disciplines. It is also a topic faculty members may want to check in with their students about in advising sessions and other out-of-class interactions. But what is the best way to frame those conversations?

My colleagues, Jessica Beard, Jim MacMillan, Sara Jacoby, Laura Partain, Iman Afif, Patrick Walters, Jason Peifer, Danielle Brown and I are working on multiple projects about how news outlets report on gun violence and how that coverage impacts victims and communities most affected by this crisis. We compiled an extensive database of news stories about gun violence broadcast daily by the four major Philadelphia television news stations in 2021 and are currently analyzing that data quantitatively and qualitatively to identify trends in our local reporting. We have also interviewed city residents who have been touched by gun violence and firearm-injured patients to understand how news coverage on this issue has affected them personally.

Much of our research points to the necessity of changing the narrative around gun violence in our local and national discourse. Our best practice recommendations are geared toward journalists, but it is important for all of us to adjust the way we think and talk about gun violence if we hope to put an end to it. In this sense, faculty at Temple can play an important role in shifting this dialogue on campus.   

Problematic Language

Those of us without direct experience of firearm violence likely learn about this topic through media. This is problematic because U.S. news has long presented violence in a superficial manner that perpetuates racial stereotypes and induces fear in audiences. In media studies, we use the term framing to describe how the choices about what events are included in the news and which aspects are emphasized in stories can influence people’s interpretations.  For example, the framing of a given social issue can affect things like who we attribute blame and responsibility to, how important we think the problem is, and the extent to which we are willing to invest in a solution. 

There are several deficiencies with the way stories about gun violence are typically framed in U.S. media. News outlets try to report on shooting incidents as immediately as possible. This breaking news approach usually leads to stories that are very brief, lacking in detail, and based almost exclusively on information from law enforcement. Such coverage does not contextualize these individual shootings by connecting them to the root causes of gun violence. By relying on police as primary sources, many journalists exclude the perspectives of the people bearing the brunt of this epidemic. News reports talk about firearm violence almost exclusively as an issue of crime, as opposed to one of public health. Solutions to gun violence are rarely investigated in depth. Most egregiously, reporting on this issue is racialized, with Black victims receiving less attention and less humanized coverage compared to white victims. News outlets also run stories involving Black suspects at a volume that is disproportionate to actual rates of crime. 

This framing can lead to detrimental misconceptions among audiences and can harm the people being reported on. When stories about violence are not situated in proper context, media consumers are more likely to blame individuals for crime than to attribute it to systemic deficiencies. With little investigation into what is perpetuating this epidemic and what can be done to combat it, audiences can be left feeling fearful and hopeless. Circumscribing language about gun violence to that of criminal justice limits the scope of imagined solutions to punitive measures. News that racializes this issue perpetuates pernicious stereotypes about Black men being inherently aggressive and stigmatizes communities of color as being dangerous. My team’s research has found that this framing also leaves residents plagued by this crisis feeling commodified by news organizations and can adversely affect the recovery of shooting victims.  

If we replicate the dominant news narratives about gun violence, we will be complicit in perpetuating these associated harms. Instead, below are some suggestions for framing conversations about this topic in a more accurate and productive way in our classrooms.

Complicate the Narrative

To have more generative discussions with students, seek out ways to fill in the gaps left in of most reporting on gun violence. Don’t just talk about a specific occurrence in isolation, but connect it to the social forces surrounding it. For example, we know that the surge in gun violence is correlated to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the matter of causation is unclear. Asking students to research and hypothesize about the relationship between these two epidemics might help them understand firearm violence as a public health matter. One way to challenge the notion that people in certain neighborhoods are simply more prone to violence is to direct students to look at which Philadelphia communities were historically hit with redlining and see how that maps onto geographic areas with current high rates of firearm incidents. This exercise will draw attention to the fact that disparities in gun violence are inextricably linked to systemic racism. If you want to demonstrate how skewed most news is toward a law enforcement perspective, have your class analyze who is quoted most often across stories from several outlets. In all likelihood, the majority of the sources will be police. Invite students to think about whose voices are not included in these stories and to imagine how the framing might be different if those perspectives had been highlighted. 

Thankfully, there are organizations out there doing an excellent job of producing reporting that does situate gun violence within its larger context. These are invaluable resources to use as a starting point for nuanced conversations about this issue. The Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting provides a list of several resources for improving the discourse around firearm violence. You might consider using some of the center’s Credible Messenger projects, which are stories produced by Philadelphians directly impacted by gun violence in conjunction with local professional journalists. The Trace is a publication that exclusively generates coverage of gun violence in the United States. The stories from The Trace examine root causes, incorporate multiple perspectives, provide follow-up coverage, and explore solutions. Using articles from this outlet would be ideal for classroom discussions. 

Focus on Solutions 

A crucial function of U.S. journalism is to call attention to social problems that need to be addressed. Yet, one of the unintended consequences of this tradition is that much of daily news content is negative, which can leave audiences feeling numb or hopeless. Many journalists have recently adopted a Solutions Journalism approach to covering social issues. Put simply, this type of reporting not only highlights problems but investigates potential ways to ameliorate them. It also calls for reporters to rely on more non-official sources and to examine the structural underpinnings of problems. A solutions journalism approach to gun violence can therefore be a corrective to many of the weaknesses in how the issue is typically framed. When choosing a story for an assignment or as a discussion prompt about gun violence, consider one that is produced in the solutions journalism model. You can search for examples of such pieces using the Solutions Story Tracker or make use of The Guardian’s Guns and Lies series. 

One important finding that came out of interviews my colleagues and I conducted with firearm-injured patients and other people affected by gun violence was that they were upset that local news outlets rarely cover community efforts to combat this crisis. They wished that journalists would produce stories that highlight the various grass roots outreach, activism, and support services in their neighborhoods. These participants also pointed out the absence of follow-up stories that focus on how people recover and build back from shootings. The status quo reporting made many of these interviewees feel like news stories on this topic were exploitative of their pain and had no value for their communities. Additionally, preliminary analyses of our data from local television news coverage of gun violence shows that when stories do include solutions to gun violence, they rarely present in-depth explorations of programs, policies, or interventions. Taken together, these findings point to the importance of ensuring that discussions of gun violence center on the priorities of the people most directly impacted by the crisis and that they explore solutions in a substantial manner. 

Talk About Public Health

Our research team is also advocating for media outlets to frame gun violence as a public health issue instead of exclusively one of crime. Organizations such as the American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association conceptualize firearm violence as a matter of public health. In April of 2021, President Biden also declared gun violence a public health epidemic. Although there have been calls since the 1990s for journalists to report on this issue in terms of public health, news frames have largely continued to emphasize the criminal justice perspective. 

Similar to a solutions journalism approach, public health framing expands story sources beyond law enforcement and emphasizes root causes. In particular, public health officials and medical personnel are sought out as expert sources. Reporting with a public health frame would include relevant epidemiologic information such as individual and community level consequences, risk factors for violence, and, perhaps most crucially, prevention methods. In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to adopt a public health frame is that it assumes there are effective ways to actually prevent gun violence as opposed to accepting it as an inevitable part of our society. Additionally, discussing this crisis as one that affects us as an entire population, instead of as select individuals, encourages people to seek collective responses. Presenting firearm violence to students as a matter of public health, similar to the COVID-19 pandemic or the opioid crises, will give them a more complete understanding of the issue and might enable them to envision an end to the epidemic. 

I offer these suggestions with the hope that gun violence rates in our city and nation will abate, but also with the knowledge that we all need to help shift the narrative in order for that to come to fruition.   

Jennifer Midberry, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Journalism and Communication Department at Lehigh University. She earned her doctorate in Media and Communication from Temple in 2016.

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