Reporting the Gun Beat: How I Got the Story
Mine the data. Unpack gun issues for contemporary readers. Fight against a failure of the imagination.
The following paraphrased tips were drawn from presentations given by journalists Mark Follman, National Affairs Editor at Mother Jones, and Cheryl W. Thompson, investigative reporter at The Washington Post.
Mark Follman, National Affairs Editor, Mother Jones
PROCESS: MINING DATA
Gun violence data often doesn’t exist. Or if it does, it’s hidden. But when you can find it, how do you turn it into narrative?
Start off with a few framing questions:
- How often do mass shootings happen?
- What is this going to cost the community?
Set the questions aside to make databases. There are limitations to CDC and Justice Department data, so don’t be afraid to look in your backyards for local and regional data sets. Then, search for the stories within that data.
Don’t be afraid to let the process of reporting become part of your story. That’s not always going to be appropriate but with this subject in particular, there is often a story within that process. For example, the difficulty of tracking down data allowed Follman to talk about the politics of the gun lobby and how they’ve blocked data from the public for so long. There are more opportunities for that kind of storytelling at the local and regional level.
BUILDING TRUST: SURVIVOR STORIES
It was important for Follman to show a broad range of types of gun violence and to put faces to those stories. But how do you convince people to talk to you who initially do not want to?
An estimated 20,000 of the 32,000 gun deaths in 2014 were suicides. People reporting on guns need to be telling that story.
To find someone who fit this criteria, Follman looked for a state with a high suicide rate – Wyoming has highest per capita in the country – then went to local groups, like the suicide prevention task force.
He says to be transparent – approach potential subjects in a way that is respectful and open and respond to what they tell you. For example, the woman Follman spoke with said she didn’t want to talk about gun control. Respect those wishes, but it is important to include that detail in your story.
It’s also important to be wary of agendas that a “professional” victim or survivor might have. Get past the advocacy group agenda by trying to find an atypical story to move the ball forward on this subject.
Cheryl Thompson, Investigative Journalist, The Washington Post, The Hidden Life of Guns
Task: Find every police officer in the US who had been killed by a gun over a decade.
HOW I GOT THE STORY
- Get the basics: FBI Website lists the type of gun used, the officer’s age and where he or she worked.
- Figure out a name: Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP): Search by name, state and comb through the details.
- Cross check: Take the date and location from the FBI and match up the details with the name of the officer listed by the ODMP.
- Fact check: Call each department and agency to verify the information.
- Create a database: Incorporate as much information as possible, including names, ages, departments, types of guns used and where the guns came from.
- Track down trace data reports, which include useful information:
- Dealer information
- Type of gun
- Purchaser: including social security number and driver’s license
- Purchase date
- Time to Crime: The amount of time between the first legal purchase of a firearm and its recovery by law enforcement in a crime. Guns recovered within three years of their original purchase have a “short time to-crime” and are more likely to have been trafficked.
- Summary of results: Other guns they bought with serial numbers, where the gun originated and the criminal history associated with the gun’s serial number.
After the passage of the Tiahrt amendment, it became illegal for any federal agency to release trace data reports. But it is not illegal for local police departments to share them. Though police officers can clam up when one of their own is killed, they tend to tell you everything you need to know – Thompson investigated the gun deaths of 511 police officers, and just one department refused to help her.
- Stories need people. The next step is to find those people – to humanize your story. Mine your data, share some of yourself to make a connection and start your interviews.
Jim MacMillan, Founder & Editor, GunCrisis.org
- Think of guns in terms of supply and demand, and move beyond the rights debate: Innovations in public health and criminology come with evidence of remarkable efficacy but are seldom applied due to political impediments.
- Focus on peace instead of conflict. Ask why there was peace before epidemic gun violence, what will peace look like in the future and how can we get there?
- Search for solutions from other conflicts, in other times and other places. Ask what innovations have transformed other public services and how we can apply them to violence reduction. Examine technological solutions. Imagine undiscovered innovations. Define and address the impediments.
- Participate in your community, on social media and face-to-face during events. Partner with other individuals and groups working to bring an end to gun violence. Remember that very few people are responsible for most of the shooting and that most people want peace. Learn from each other and share what you learn.
- Remember the special challenges and responsibilities of covering traumatic events, including our impact on the people we cover, our communities, our colleagues and ourselves. And remember how traumatic experiences can skew our perceptions, desensitize us and challenge accurate reporting.
- Report gun violence in context: Look at the relationship with police brutality and mass incarceration. Compare the number of lives lost to gun violence with the toll of war and terrorism and compare the government’s response. Examine the complete spectrum of ramifications.
- Apply data journalism strategies to quantify the shooters, victims, costs, progress and failures.
- Consider the economic cost of gun violence, both direct and indirect: Look beyond first responders, health care and criminal justice systems to include lost property value and lost business investment.
- Discuss accountability: Only the suffering is segregated but not the social responsibility of the opportunity to make a difference. Imagine how future generations will view this period.