In the days following the mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, media organizations, politicians, and online commentators bemoaned the reappearance of mass violence in America. “Gun Carnage Returns,” read the headline of an editorial from Newsday. “Is this what a return to normal looks like?” asked an article published by NBC News. Even former President Barack Obama, in a statement released on Twitter, referred to the moment as a recurrence of a phenomenon the pandemic had stalled: “A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country.”
But mass shootings only slowed under a commonly used but restrictive definition that leaves out most mass-casualty incidents. When defined as incidents in which four or more people were shot in a public or private space, there were more mass shootings in 2020 than in any of the previous years for which data is kept, according to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun violence in America. Last year saw more than 600 mass shootings, almost double the average of the previous five years. The trend has continued into 2021, with more than 100 such shootings before the end of March.
There was the shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June of last year, where gunmen fired more than 200 rounds into a crowded block party, killing four and injuring five others. Two months later in Washington, D.C., multiple shooters fired into another neighborhood block party, killing one and injuring 21. In January of this year, gunfire erupted during a basketball game at a public park in Miami, injuring eight. None of these shootings prompted multiday news cycles or condolences from former presidents. But they were just as devastating to local communities as the shootings in Boulder or Atlanta, doing the same kind of damage to residents’ sense of safety in public spaces. As the Reverend Keith Butler, the father of one of the Miami shooting victims, told a local reporter, “My son now doesn’t even feel safe at a public park.”
As The Trace has reported, many victims and community activists believe that the dearth of coverage of particular shootings owes, at least partially, to the race of the victims. In 2020, mass shootings disproportionately occurred in majority-Black neighborhoods. But even the highest-casualty incidents received limited national media attention.
“The fear that a lot of Americans are struggling with and facing right now is the fear that people in our neighborhoods have been living with and navigating for decades,” said Greg Jackson, the director of the Community Justice Action Fund, a national nonprofit dedicated to advancing community-focused policy solutions to address violence. “And I think the media has written off our communities. Through their consistent criminalization and dehumanization of the people we’ve lost, they have become part of the problem.”
According to a recent study published in the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity about shooting victims in Chicago, this pattern held for local news outlets. It found that Black people killed in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city in 2016 received roughly half as much news coverage as white people killed in majority-white neighborhoods, and were less likely to be discussed as “multifaceted, complex people.”
“The most newsworthy shootings seem to break an assumption that a particular place is safe,” said Shannon Morrissey, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, who co-authored the study. “Our research suggests that in Chicago, shootings in majority-Black neighborhoods are not breaking those assumptions, at least for the people living outside of them.”
Varying definitions of what constitutes a “mass shooting” also seem to have influenced coverage choices. The Violence Project, whose data has been cited by several news organizations in the wake of the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, uses a definition devised by the Congressional Research Service, which counts only incidents in which four or more people were killed in a public place with no connection to any underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance. The Gun Violence Archive uses a much broader definition, which The Trace follows, counting every incident in which four or more people were injured or killed by gunfire in a single location. Unlike most definitions, the Gun Violence Archive does not require that a shooting happened in a public place to be counted as a mass shooting. As a result, many of the incidents in its data refer to shootings that took place in homes and backyards.
The differences reflect the distinct types of shootings each group intends to study or track. The Violence Project’s definition, for example, allows the organization to gather data about a specific and poorly researched phenomenon in America, said its co-founder, Jillian Peterson: “public shootings with lots of fatalities where there’s no relationship between the shooter and the victims.” Few shootings fit this bill. Because Peterson and her colleagues maintain so precise a focus, their data excludes many high-casualty shootings, including those stemming from domestic violence or community conflicts. The latter account for a majority of high-casualty shootings in predominantly Black neighborhoods across the country.
Peterson says The Violence Project’s definition should be used carefully. “It’s important to be very clear about what definition you are using and why,” she said, adding that her group’s data only reflects a narrow subset of shootings, and is not representative of gun violence in America as a whole.
Over the past week, though, many news organizations have presented a limited picture of last year’s historic rise in high-casualty violence using this definition. According to The New York Times, before the shooting in Atlanta on March 16, “it had been a year since there had been a large-scale shooting in a public place.” Another story, from People magazine, claimed that “after a year without mass shootings in American public spaces, there have been two in six days.” Both of these statements may be technically true, but neither news outlet explained The Violence Project’s highly specific, multipart definition of mass shooting.
As a result, both stories missed dozens of high-casualty shootings that occurred in majority-Black neighborhoods over the past year. Jackson said that using such a narrow definition of mass shooting enforces a harmful hierarchy of gun violence that winds up ranking shootings with Black victims as less newsworthy. By overlooking violence that happened in majority-Black communities over the past year, he said, news organizations send an implicit signal about which forms of violence legislators and the broader public should mobilize to stop. “The most dangerous part about this is that news coverage has the unique ability to prioritize policy and action.”