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Dr. Jessica Beard

579. How media reporting on firearm violence does more harm than good

Dr. Jessica Beard is a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, the hospital that receives and treats the largest number of patients injured by firearms in the entire state of Pennsylvania. 

“When I first came to Philadelphia, I went to the news to try and understand some specific things about the patients I might not get to meet before they pass away before I get to meet them, but also the circumstances of the why (they were injured by firearms),” she says. “Instead of deep contextual reporting, what I found largely in media reporting about firearm violence is what I later learned are these very episodic crime reports, short narratives with law enforcement narrators that are very short on context — ‘A 25-year-old man was shot on the corner of Broad and Tioga. He was transported to Temple University Hospital where he’s in critical condition. The police have no motives and no arrests.’ I thought, wow, if that’s what the public is understanding about gun violence and this part of the human toll, the root causes of which are related to deeply entrenched structural and social determinants of health and racism, frankly, they really are not getting a complete sense of what gun violence is about.” 

Beard doesn’t have a background in journalism, but she does have research experience through her training in public health; dealing daily with people injured by firearms inspired her to wonder how that “episodic crime report” approach to these incidents could be done in a way that provides more context, centering the people whose lives are impacted by this violent act and downplay the role of law enforcement officers as the sole source of information. 

She, in partnership with Jim MacMillan, director of the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, developed a study to learn how reports of people injured by firearms see coverage of their incident, along with the way gun violence in general is reported. In all, 26 people were interviewed for a new report, “‘Like I’m a nobody’: Firearm-injured peoples’ perspectives on news media reporting about firearm violence.” Beard is now the director of research at the center.

“The way we interacted with study participants was going to the trauma clinic, inviting them to participate,” Beard says. “We interviewed people within several months of their injuries. We asked them questions about reporting on their injuries and gun violence in their injuries. It was qualitative research, a lot like journalism. There was some rigor to it in terms of how you analyze it and look for themes.” 

The results were an indication of a “preponderance of harm” in the way the media reports incidents of firearm violence, causing victims to feel “dehumanized,” in some cases reporting they were “reliving trauma when viewing reports or the news in general. There was also a lot of distress related to inaccuracies — the number of gunshot wounds, if that’s inaccurate to the perspective of the injured person, that can cause a lot of problems,” she says. “One person said the report described him as riddled with bullets. He said that meant to people listening that he was somehow guilty or targeted. He was inside his house sleeping when he was shot.” 

Participants also noted how they felt their safety was further threatened in reports that included the name of the hospital where they were treated, while some said being included in a news report about a shooting without any context to what happened leading up to the event resulted in calls from family members asking the victim what they were doing at the time to put them in a position to be shot. 

Another problem is the lack of additional sources, relying only on the police officers speaking during a press conference or in a prepared statement.

“There’s no way a law enforcement source about a firearm injured person is a neutral stance,” Beard says. “The heavy reliance on law enforcement to tell these narratives is really problematic. Their reports are inaccurate. We’ve seen that with the most recent, very horrific mass shooting we had here in Philadelphia. One of the victims was reported as being shot in the mass shooting but he was shot days before by the same shooter in the same location.”

To help reporters do their jobs in a more mindful way, and with better sourcing, Beard and the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting are working to pair reporters with people who have lived experience with firearm violence. Beard worked with one of her patients and his mother to create a documentary of her patient’s shooting from the perspective of his mother. Making that kind of narrative available can help journalists think differently and more deeply about how they report on firearm related violence and injuries. 

The center also is working on building a curriculum to reframe the way gun violence is reported on and described, as preventable instead of inevitable or just another fact of life. 

Allison Taylor-Levine

625. Community collaboration key to evolving local journalism

Allison Taylor Levine, CEO of Local Journalism Initiative, discusses how LJI’s Delaware Journalism Collaborative, which has brought more than 25 partners throughout the state together to report on polarization and possible solutions, strengthens local journalism in Delaware and our democracy.

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