Covering the surge in gun violence as a public health issue

Cedric Dark, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.E.P. (to the right), speaking with an attendee at Health Journalism 2022.

During the “Reframing gun violence as a public health issue” panel at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, moderator and Commonwealth Fund Journalist in Residence at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Joanne Kenen asked attendees, “How many of you have been affected by gun violence?” About half of them raised their hands.

“Okay, that was a trick question,” Kenen said. “All of you should have raised your hands because even if you haven’t been directly impacted by gun violence yourself, we are all being affected by gun violence.”

According to recent Pew Research Center data, 2020 marked the highest number on record of gun deaths in the United States; approximately 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries. Although suicide accounts for about 60% of gun deaths in any given year, the total from 2020 was driven by a 35% increase in homicides from the previous year to more than 19,000.

Panelists encouraged journalists to take a public health approach to gun violence, not just a law enforcement one. “We can’t arrest our way out of a problem,” said Cassandra Crifasi, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert on this topic. “Often, arresting people contributes to the perpetuation of these problems.”

“We’re spending a lot of time rescuing people who fall out of the boat, and that’s fine. But a public health approach would say, let’s also fix the railing so people don’t fall off the boat in the first place” she added.

Taking a public health approach

Another panelist, Cedric Dark, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.E.P., assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and an emergency physician,  defined public health with a question: How do we use science to inform the decisions our lawmakers are making?

Panelists explained that journalists can accurately cover gun violence as an ongoing public health crisis by amplifying the experiences and perspectives of people directly impacted by gun violence (solidarity journalism) and the community-based solutions to it (solutions journalism).

“The story is the people in the community who are in these CBI [Community-based Initiative] programs and impacted by these policies and involved in the process of getting to the solutions,” said Amber Goodwin, an attorney who does community organizing and is community liaison to the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the Office of Violence Prevention.

Community programs like Cure Violence Global and Advance Peace have made tremendous progress in communities at high risk for gun violence, decreasing gun deaths by up to 60% in some cases.

“We’ve seen incredible strides in communities when they are invested in,” Goodwin said.

Framing your story and word choice

Panelists also offered journalists practical tips for word choice and framing when covering gun violence.

  • “Get rid of the word ‘accident’ in your reporting,” Dark said. “We need to get this out of our lexicon, so people realize these aren’t just things that happen, these things are preventable.”
  • “Be sensitive to language to avoid copycats and stigmatization,” Crifasi said.
  • The accurate way to report suicide is by saying “died by suicide,” not “committed suicide,” according to the Associated Press. “Committed” implies the person is guilty of a crime and places shame and stigma on them, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  • For mass shootings, journalists should focus on the victims and survivors. Any coverage of the perpetrator glorifies that person.
  • When reporting on suicides, AP policy is to not talk about the mechanism used. “Suicide prevention experts believe, based on experience and some studies, that the less said in the media about the methods of suicide, the less likelihood that a celebrity’s death will prompt vulnerable, at-risk persons from taking their lives by that same method in the days immediately after.”

Although panelists admitted experts are still “teasing apart the perfect storm” that was the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the January 6 insurrection the following year, “one good thing is that people are now thinking about the social, structural and economic determinants that drive violence,” Crifasi said.

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