Covering gun violence: How can local media do better?

We want to hear from you.

November 6, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Covering gun violence is a project to reimagine how we and our colleagues cover gun violence and its aftermath. You can use this simple form to let us know what questions — or ideas — you have about reducing gun violence, and what you’d like to know about the problem.

There have been 761 victims of gun violence in the five boroughs in 2019, as of Oct. 20. Shooting incidents are up nearly 4 percent from last year. Call it a spike, or an uptick, or an anomaly — it doesn’t change the fact that people are getting shot in the safest big city in the nation. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s unacceptable.

We believe local daily journalism can play a more meaningful role in empowering residents to tackle the enduring challenge of gun violence in our city. The Brooklyn Eagle is launching a 6-month reporting project to reimagine how we and our colleagues cover gun violence incidents and their aftermath.

Our goal, broadly stated, is to find approaches to our daily journalism that bring solutions and understanding following incidents of gun violence, and to do away with reporting practices that are harmful to communities.

Key to this project is to put those who know best, and who we hope to serve, behind the steering wheel in creating this framework. We will gather survivors, advocates and community members affected by gun violence, as well as policymakers, experts and law enforcement to hear how they tell their stories and talk about solutions, and what challenges and questions they have.

With their input, we’ll publish recommendations any local media organization can adopt for reporting on gun violence incidents in New York City. With their questions, and those from across our audience, we’ll also produce a series of articles addressing larger systemic issues.

The project is funded in part by Facebook Journalism Project Community Network.

Read more about the project below, or learn how to get involved.

What we’re doing

The approaches we’ll take will be driven by experts, stakeholders, survivors and victims’s loved ones — in effect, those most affected by gun violence will steer our reporting process.

We’ll be hosting a roundtable and distributing surveys to survivors, advocates, policy makers and law enforcement. They’ll share their stories, and with gun violence survivors and their families in particular we’ll be listening for where they were not well served, or were harmed, by current reporting methods. What kind of questions did they have after an incident? How were they portrayed in the media, and what kinds of consequences did they face? What choices did they face, and what could have better informed them?  These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking.

Using their feedback, we’ll craft a set of guidelines to inform our reporting.

We’ll also tackle the bigger questions behind these incidents driven by feedback from our readers. Where do the guns come from? What drives the violence? What new policy solutions can New York City consider to succeed in eliminating gun violence? Our ideal outcomes would be to bring more understanding and empathy of communities affected by gun violence and to identify solutions.

After approximately six months, we’re reconvening the group to tell us how we did. This will all conclude with a report of best practices to distribute to other media organizations.

Why we’re doing it

Broadly speaking, the media has not been a good partner to communities for which gun violence is an ongoing and present reality.

Some of the problems are apparent. One was pointed out rather powerfully by Valerie Bowens, the aunt of Nasheem Prioleau, who was killed in a Gowanus shootout with police earlier this month.

“The only information we’re getting is information off the news,” Bowens told the New York Daily News. “What the news is saying, from the police. One side, and there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

By relying solely on police accounts, the news failed Bowens and others who’ve faced tragedies. Deep skepticism exists between the communities most affected by gun violence and the police, and relying on police accounts undermines the independence of our reporting, the trust communities have in us, and ultimately our ability to empower solutions.

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Many of the problems with reporting on gun violence pervade all reporting on local crime. A 2001 study found that 76 percent of the public form their opinions about crime by what they see or read in the news. Yet the prevalence of crime reporting in local newsrooms — a relatively low-effort tactic with high readership returns — skews perception of crime. Researchers behind that report were able to show that the volume of crime reporting, and the different reporting treatments based on the demographics of perpetrators and victims, causes a misperception of high crime rates and reinforces racial biases among readers.

A 2014 report by the Sentencing Project found that racial perceptions of crime, driven by the news media, were utterly askew. White Americans have an exaggerated perception of crime rates among communities of color. Respondents to one survey overestimated the participation of black people in crimes by as much as 30 percent.

When such misperceptions abound, it frays the fabric between communities and erodes empathy. The Sentencing Project found that misperceptions of crime rates fueled support for punitive criminal justice policies that harm more than help communities affected by violence — a legacy we’re attempting to reconcile in New York City today. That makes finding meaningful solutions improbable, and focuses resources on policies with long-term harm.

Essentially, current reporting tactics at local news outlets are leading people to believe crime rates are higher than they are, and puts up walls between those communities most affected by it and those communities whose support could accelerate solutions.

How to get involved

This project’s success depends on hearing from those with stakes in the ground. We’re looking for people who have been affected by gun violence and their advocates. We’re also looking for those involved around the discussion of gun violence: policymakers, law enforcement sources, experts and academics that can add big picture context and insight to local incidents. And we’re looking to hear from anyone in our audience who has a question about gun violence or gun policy in New York. Use the form below to get in touch.

How else to help

Spread the word. Ask us a question. Follow us. Give us space to meet. Talk to us about partnerships — including and especially if — you’re another media company.

If you’d like to discuss partnering on this project, please email Cambria Roth at [email protected].

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