Youth Violence, with a Public Health Frame

This tipsheet from the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Getting it Right: Reporting on Youth Violence" condenses the advice of public health experts who spoke at the workshop.

Why Use a Public Health Frame?

Framing matters. Media scholars and journalists have long recognized that it is not only the story but how the story is framed that matters. (See Dart Center fact sheet The Effect of News Frames.) Given the same set of facts, an incident of youth violence could be presented as an isolated act of an unstable individual, part of an unstoppable crime wave or one piece of a wider public health problem.

Stories on youth violence often choose inaccurate or misleading frames. For instance, media scholarship has shown that:

  • News stories in the 20th century almost always describe crime trends as “increasing,” even when actual crime statistics are stable.
  • Perpetrators are consistently described as younger and violence as worse than in previous eras, even when statistics do not bear this out. 
  • Racial bias creeps into stories. Dehumanizing language like “recidivist” and “assailant” is used frequently in stories about violence committed by people of color, but not in stores about violence committed by whites.
  • Many stories leave readers with the impression that violence is inevitable, when in fact there are evidence-based interventions that have proven successful in reducing violence.

Youth violence is a public health problem. It behaves like an infectious disease. This makes sense, since we know that behavior is affected by experience and social expectations.  (See
the New York Times Magazine article on "Blocking the Transmission of Violence.")

The public health frame helps get the big picture right. Public health as a discipline looks at the big picture and tries to intervene at the social rather than the individual level. By taking a wider view of behavior, and considering social factors, public health has improved everything from family planning to motor vehicle safety to control of infectious diseases.

Using a public health frame changes readers’ understanding of youth violence. Studies show that when reporting used a public health frame and talking about social factors rather than simply the incident itself, causing the readers to focus on society rather than simply the individual perpetrator.

Reporting: Get Context Right with the Right Sources

Interview public health experts: both scientists and advocates. The first way to get the context right is to interview people who know the context. Public health experts can help illuminate the social factors that surround youth violence in general, as well as provide solid data. Advocates can help you to understand the local context, as well as the work that is being done to prevent and reduce violence.

Find a local guide. Seek out youth, mothers, fathers, social workers and educators to find someone who is trusted in the community who can help you understand the local context. Don't rely solely on law enforcement, who have a selective picture.

Use your sources’ strengths. Don’t accept scientific data from advocates; don’t accept description of advocacy work from scientists; and don't accept a characterization of a community by someone who doesn't know that community.

When talking to experts, ask broad questions, but make sure you understand the answers. Some suggested questions for scientists:

  • What’s the most important thing for the public to know?
  • Can you explain that in lay terms?
  • Without ignoring the complexities of the issue, where does the bulk of the research fall out on that?
  • What questions remain unanswered?
  • What would you use additional research funding for?

Writing: Think Through Word Choice

Don't use words you can't back up. Even when you don't think you're explicitly stating a fact or statistic, the words you choose can have factual implications. Don't say that an incedent of violence is part of a "crime wave" or "increasing" or "worsening" crime unless you can really demonstrate such a trend.

Be careful with metaphors. When you compare violence to a force of nature or a spreading disease, it can make it seem that it is outside of human control. Consider whether this is really what you want your story to imply before you use language about a "deluge."

Consider using public health language instead of legal language. Instead of terms like “offender,” “recidivist,” “assailant,” consider using language like “behavior,” “peer expectations,” and “social norms.” Studies show that this shift can cause readers to seek public health solutions to violence, rather than simply heavier criminal sentencing.

Be consistent. Dehumanizing language like "recidivist" and "assailant" are particularly overused for people of color. Make sure that your language isn't employed in a way that is biased.