Reporting Gun Violence: Time for a New Approach

On August 26, 2015, Alison Parker, a television reporter for WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, and Adam Ward, Parker’s videographer, were shot and killed on camera by a former colleague. Now Chris Hurst, the evening news anchor for WDBJ and Parker’s boyfriend at the time of her death, asks how American newsrooms could cover gun violence differently.

With more than 30 thousand gun deaths each year in America – over 80 people every day – most journalists probably agree that gun violence is an issue of national importance that should be reported extensively by the media. But our conversation has been reduced to reporting each mass shooting as urgent breaking news; going to politicians to hear them bash or support possible gun legislation (legislation which may or may not have prohibited the specific perpetrator of a highly covered shooting from getting a gun in the first place); and then, most of the time, shrugging our shoulders until the next one. This kind of coverage makes serious discourse about the gun issue a nonstarter.

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves, “What are the drivers of our narrative of gun violence? What incidents of gun violence should we use as an opportunity to have a substantive conversation about gun violence?”

At the national level, the incidents that attract coverage are all too often the public, demonstrative acts of violence done for acclaim.  The murders of my girlfriend, Alison Parker and her videographer, Adam Ward, on live television were perpetrated to achieve some kind of notoriety. So were the shootings in San Bernardino, at Umpqua Community College, and in Sandy Hook.

Of course we need to cover these tragedies. But the problem with using these tragedies as the starting point for the gun-violence news agenda is that they often have little in common except the tool used to commit the violence.  

 Of course the tool matters; lethality matters. But these high-profile shootings are not the everyday reality of gun violence in America. As journalists, we simply aren’t engaging our audiences and our communities on this subject to the extent that we should, because we’re not connecting with the people who are most often adversely affected by gun violence.

Meaningful journalism on gun violence shouldn’t just look at the mass shootings or other high profile incidents, but also acknowledge and report on the populations most at risk of being killed with a gun— young black men in homicides and white men from suicide. Suicide with a gun rates are steadily on the rise, and white men, particularly those over the age of 70, are most at risk.

And again, the tool matters, because guns are used in half of all suicides, but only less than one percent of those that are not completed; guns are incredibly efficient in doing the job for which they were designed. Suicide attempts mostly occur within an hour of a decision being made, which shows an element of impulsivity in the act. But nearly all of those who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to attempt a second time.

The availability of guns used in suicide is an issue that deserves our attention. Where do these guns come from and what can our readers and viewers do to limit access for those we love?

Guns are also killing those in the latter end of the millennial generation – in fact guns are how millennials are most commonly dying. Firearm homicides are the leading cause of death for black men ages 15 to 24 and the second highest cause for white and Hispanic men in the same age group. They are the children of the audience we cater to and the demographic the news industry wants to connect with.

Millennials are also the ones who most often use guns to commit crimes. That’s more than a million potential years of life lost every year and about two million dollars necessary to imprison someone that age for the rest of their life. If journalists love to expose waste of tax payer money, here’s a prime example.

As an issue, gun violence is complex, has no easy beginning, middle and end and therefore is difficult to navigate. But that is exactly why I believe every newsroom needs to answer a couple questions about gun violence in their own communities. Is this an issue of importance? Will we dedicate ourselves to reporting the many different angles? Will we designate someone or a team of reporters to identify the populations most at risk in our area and investigate possible solutions to the problem?

Over the years in my newsroom, our news director has identified heroin and opiate abuse, diabetes, domestic violence and the Affordable Care Act as subjects worthy of a focused, on-going examination. It’s time gun violence, and the people most at risk to be victims, are treated with a similar focus.