A few decades ago, a group of researchers set out to determine whether news reporting on suicide was causing harm. What they learned: Certain types of coverage led more people to end their lives. The findings were so conclusive that they eventually persuaded many journalists to be more careful when interviewing bereaved family or friends, and to refrain from explicitly describing the way their subjects ended their lives, in order to reduce the risk of a copycat effect. In other words, the research caused long-lasting change. Parallel research into the effects of reporting on mass shootings has had a similar outcome in the last decade.
Now, researchers in Philadelphia are trying to do the same for reporting on gun violence. They want it to become more sensitive to the needs of its subjects, less likely to cause further damage. But to do that, they’ll need to prove that the way journalists cover everyday gun violence is causing significant harm.
Dr. Jessica Beard, a Temple University Hospital trauma unit surgeon and lead researcher for the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, recently took the first step by co-publishing a study on the issue in SSM – Qualitative Research in Health, a peer-reviewed journal. To produce the report, called “‘Like I’m a nobody: ’Firearm-injured peoples’ perspectives on news media reporting about firearm violence,” her team interviewed 26 people who had recently sought treatment for gunshot wounds at Temple’s outpatient trauma clinic.
The survivors told Beard’s team they felt that news coverage about shootings is conveyed with little to no regard for victims’ welfare, and frequently demonizes survivors. They said they often perceive news reporting about their encounters to be harmful and traumatic. Some felt their safety was at risk because of specific details that were published. Many times, they wished they’d never made the news to begin with.
“We spent so much time talking to people anonymously about these specific questions that we learned a lot more,” Beard said. “I think that thinking about whose perspective when you’re telling the story is a really important first step.”
Philadelphia is home to persistent gun violence, and in 2022, it surpassed 500 homicides for the second year in a row. When Beard began seeing her patients in the news frequently, she wondered about the effects that coverage had on them. “That really motivated me to begin to educate myself about the media’s role and narrative around firearm violence in Philadelphia and beyond,” she said. That question led her to collaborate with Jim MacMillan, who founded the PCGVR — a founding community partner for The Trace’s Up the Block project in Philly — with similar concerns.
The report on their research highlights other studies that found media reports on gun violence are largely focused on individual shooting events. Because coverage doesn’t look at the crisis in a systematic way, Beard says, it can undermine support for finding public health solutions for gun violence. Beard hopes that the study, along with subsequent research, will eventually influence newsrooms to produce fewer one-off stories that only cover a block in its moment of crisis, and take on new practices that alleviate hardships and avoid re-traumatizing survivors.
What does it take to cause change?
For the last 40 years, The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention has helped newsrooms change their approach to covering suicides. In leading this work, chief medical officer Christine Moutier finds herself returning to the same questions. “What are the factors that drive up risk for suicide and suicidal behavior?” she asked. “And what are the factors that protect individuals and bring down that risk?”
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Research, she said, is “necessary but probably insufficient to produce that next step of changes in heart, attitude, and ultimately behavior,” Moutier said. “Changing behavior, that’s a whole science of its own. How you move from shift in belief to shift in actual behavior. It’s a process.”
In 2017, the World Health Organization updated its suicide prevention guide for media professionals. The update added suggestions on how to use photos, videos, and social media links, and provided tips on providing information about where to seek help. It also posited guidelines for avoiding language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide.
Similar to those recommendations, the new Temple-led study states that the news media plays a crucial role in shaping how the public and policy makers understand and respond to threats like gun violence.
“No one has ever studied whether harmful reporting on interpersonal gun violence, like we see in Philadelphia, is associated with the actual rates of gun violence,” Beard said. “I think a lot of research has wide value like this, but this specifically I think, for journalists, hopefully they’ll listen to what our patients are saying.”
Beard said her study is a starting point, and acknowledges more research should be done. “There is reporting happening on firearm-injured people, without their involvement in the narrative,” she said.
However, some experts say it’s not enough. Unlike with suicides and mass shootings, some academics say they have not yet established a clear link between reporting that includes specifics and copycat cases.
The study, said Dr. Dan Romer, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, is “kind of confusing.”
Romer, who worked on various suicide reporting guidelines, said that the two subjects are less similar than they may seem. “Suicides are very different animal. Most suicides are at home. Private, no one knows what’s going on. They’re not covered very much, unless it’s a celebrity or someone well known,” he said. “Public suicides, those get covered, and so it’s a very different phenomenon.”
He pointed to a contradiction in victims’ responses in Beard’s study. “It says that victims of gun violence feel neglected and ignored. But at the same time, it says, ‘We don’t want to be featured or our faces as shown on TV because that’s a danger for us.’ So I think the message is kind of mixed as to what seems to be more focused on television than newspapers,” he said. He added that TV reporting may be the hardest to change, because “they just don’t spend time on anything,” often focusing on episodic reporting that fills a news hole, as opposed to newspapers, where coverage can be more thematic. He said he wished that the report specified how survivors felt about each medium.
Other experts saw more overlap. Charles Branas, who chairs the Epidemiology Department and directs the CDC Center for Injury Science and Prevention at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, has worked on studies about suicides and news reporting.
“I wish [reporters] would elevate the need to address those [everyday] shootings the same way they seem to [give] preference to these mass shootings,” he said. “But by the same token, I can see how those day-to-day-shootings, if they were elevated and brought forward in the news cycle, that misreporting of them could really become a problem. Just like it has for suicide.”
Rod Hicks, director of equity and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists, had a different perspective. “Beard’s research is good, but there is enough anecdotal evidence that any journalist could look at and see that there needs to be change in how we cover crime,” he said.
Empirical evidence, Hicks said, often drives change in newsrooms. “I don’t think that this [report] is going to be enough to satisfy them,” he added. “But my question is, do you really need empirical evidence? I don’t think that you do.”
The study suggests some potential fixes, like including victims’ voices in news reports and replacing episodic crime reporting with deeper stories. It also suggests omitting specific information about an injured victim’s clinical condition — like the number and location of bullet rounds — and, for safety reasons, about their location, like the name of the hospital they’re in. The report also suggests that news outlets limit videos that depict graphic violence, and challenges journalists to focus on the response to the problem and evaluate the evidence of any one solution’s impact.
MacMillan acknowledged that some journalists are already trying to find better ways. “It’s the ratio of harmful reporting to helpful reporting that we’re concerned with,” he said.
One suggestion, Hicks said, is considering how any story “will be viewed by the public and how it will be viewed by the victims of crime.”
Already, organizations like SPJ create guidelines to help newsrooms adhere to high ethical standards. “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. That’s already there. In the code of ethics,” Hicks said. “Do we need a reason to be more compassionate in coverage of crime victims?”
Beard would say yes. “Even with all the very best, the most ethical, the most empathetic reporting that we have about firearm injury survivors and firearm violence in Philadelphia, there’s still the potential for harmful reporting.”