Newsroom veteran Jim MacMillan estimates that he reported on 2,000 shootings in 17 years as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Daily News. At the time, he believed this reporting functioned as a public service, helping the awareness of gun violence and potential prevention of it. Still, “Sometimes it felt toxic and I wondered if it was harmful,” MacMillan said.
The center focuses on helping people with lived experiences, by exploring the hypothesis that more ethical, impactful, and empathetic gun violence reporting can help prevent shootings and save lives.
A study by Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital, suggests that episodic news coverage of shootings can retraumatize survivors and their communities and possibly lead to more violence instead of less, reports Billy Penn. Beard will appear in a virtual convening next Tuesday to discuss this research and the role of the media .
The center identifies harmful reporting practices by engaging with the Philadelphia community, asking what best practices in gun violence journalism are, and looking at how they can be implemented.
It's work includes a professional development program to support reporters with best practices, an interdisciplinary research collaborative exploring the intersection of gun violence, impacted communities, and the media, and a Credible Messenger Reporting Project that trains, compensates, and empowers people affected by gun violence in Philadelphia to produce and distribute reports on the community perspective.
The center has 16 media partners, three community partners, nine funders, and 10 partner institutions.
As a trauma surgeon, Beard encountered a shocking number of gun violence victims. She found herself wanting to advocate for her patients — wanting to help them avoid the hospital, instead of just after they arrived.
“I see working to develop and support the most ethical, empathetic, and impactful reporting on gun violence as a public health intervention,” she said.
Speakers at a center workshop proposed mandatory trauma-informed training for journalists to improve interviews with gun violence survivors.
The Credible Messenger Reporting Project works like this: With financial support from the center, community members with lived experience with gun violence are paired with professional journalists, so they can learn from each other and leverage their combined authority to produce and distribute news reports. These reports have been everything from longer-form documentaries, articles, or video interviews.
Oronde McClain, a survivor of gun violence and project participant who published his own piece in May, is working with PCGVR as the credible messenger newsroom liaison. He works with journalists and news organizations in Philadelphia to help inform and develop relationships with the center, introduce the work of the center, and identify possible collaborations.
“I feel like me talking to the newsrooms has a big impact because they’re not talking to a regular person — they’re talking to a survivor that’s been through 20+ years of struggle,” McClain said. “Nothing I know is research, this is real life.”
McClain believes newsrooms are starting to listen and recognize that their reporting practices can be triggering for victims, provoke fear in communities, and perpetuate stereotypes about victims and survivors.
Intern Shannon Hodges, a high school student, believes more organizations should focus on victims.
With 10 Credible Messenger pieces released and more to come, MacMillan and team show no sign of slowing down. People in other cities have expressed interest in replicating the Credible Messenger Project, giving power back to gun violence victims so they can tell their own stories, informed by their lived experiences.
This is a productive shift from how gun violence is typically covered, Beard says.
“Most violence reporting is focused on a specific event, episodic reporting, and most if it is framed from the lens of law enforcement, a crime lens,” the trauma surgeon said. “But nobody has ever talked to people who’ve actually been shot about what the potential harms of this reporting style may be.”