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Mass Shootings Pose Challenge to Media to Report on Broader Context

The nation's most recent mass shootings triggered a fresh round of recriminations about journalists' failures to put such incidents in their proper context, as extremely rare events that are distinct from everyday community gun violence, and to report more on the systemic problems and policy solutions that could address various types of gun violence. NPR interviewed a trio of researchers on the need to focus not just on reporting the facts of any individual incident. That narrow focus misses the broader politics and policies at play, said University of Delaware communications professor Dannagal Young. "The question that I wish that all journalists would always ask themselves is, 'What is going to help Americans understand, not just this day but this broader issue?'" Nick Wilson, senior director for gun violence prevention at the Center for American Progress, agreed, adding that overly narrow coverage "can unintentionally spread a sense of hopelessness and cynicism that nothing can be done. But we do know that gun laws work and investments in communities work and there are ways to prevent some of these shootings."

By so heavily covering mass public attacks to the exclusion of far more common everyday gun violence, the news media skews public understanding of the true nature of the nation's gun violence problems, and on what would fix them, said Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital and director of research for the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting. The coverage can be so skewed, she said, that "all the best, most empathetic and ethical reporting in the world may not be able to negate that harmful reporting." Columbia Journalism Review in 2021 reacted to another spate of mass shootings by creating a a list of ways in which reporters could change how they report on gun violence. The recommendations included covering gun violence like a health crisis, devoting adequate newsroom resources to cover the story, acknowledging the racism inherent in much gun coverage, and contextualizing mass shootings as one part of a bigger problem. That included a pledge that almost no journalists signed, a clear indication that the status quo is difficult to break, wrote Kyle Pope, CJR's editor in chief and publisher, in a new essay. Instead of continuing to follow what he called "the prescribed media response: breaking-news scramble, then outrage, then frustrated calls made of elected officials, who pledged that the response this time would be different," journalists must resolve to do better. "Every decent-size newsroom in the country should have a gun beat," Pope wrote. "Every mass-shooting story needs to contextualize the outrage within the bigger epidemic. Every lawmaker at every level needs to be held to account on why they aren’t doing more."


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