Episodic media coverage of gun violence can dehumanize victims and force them to relive their trauma while undermining support for public health solutions, says a new research study from Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.
“This study is the first of its kind that explored the perspectives of firearm-injured people,” said Temple trauma surgeon Jessica Beard.
“At a time when we’re seeing this massive increase in gun violence, at a really crucial time in our city and our nation’s history,” Beard said, “they told us that the way their stories are told is causing more harm to them when they’re trying to recuperate from a traumatic event.”
Beard was lead author of the study, which involved interviews with 26 patients in one of the busiest trauma centers for shooting victims in Philadelphia, where an average of 40 people are injured by firearms each week, reports Billy Penn.
How traditional breaking coverage can be damaging has been a topic of discussion in the news industry, thanks in part to the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, where Beard is director of research.
One woman interviewed said she was upset the media didn’t tell the story from her perspective. She would have preferred if a journalist had interviewed her, “instead of just writing it like I’m a nobody,” she said.
Another patient felt exploited by media coverage that he believed sent a harmful message to residents: “The city is violent. That’s what goes on. Expect this every day.” Instead, he wished journalists had used his shooting as an opportunity to push for solutions to gun violence.
People in the study described concerns that media coverage compromised their personal safety, harmed their reputation and created a traumatic experience, especially when their shootings were reported inaccurately.
The paper urged a rethinking of the media’s approach, eschewing episodic coverage — think “a barrage of bullets sprayed through X neighborhood” or “Y number of people were shot at a corner that turned deadly” — for the type of thematic reporting that can help audiences recognize which institutions and policies might be “responsible for entrenched social problems” that lead to gun violence.
It emphasized treating the crisis as a public health problem, with journalists and health practitioners working together on trauma-informed reporting that incorporates the perspectives of people with lived experience.
Beard, who conducted the study with Lehigh University’s journalism department, the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school and PCGVR, said giving gun violence victims a voice in their own stories would give audiences a sense of “what it looks like to survive a firearm injury, the incredible barriers people have to surmount to do that, and the incredible resilience people show."
Notably, none of the study participants was actually interviewed by a journalist about their injuries. Information was likely gleaned from police and often included inaccuracies that led to emotional distress.
Among the two dozen people interviewed for the study, those whose injuries received media attention largely felt negative or conflicted about the coverage.
“Participants who made the news conveyed an impression of the impersonal tenor of reports, describing how these narratives feel dehumanizing, lack a sense of empathy, suggest the inevitability of firearm violence, and cause additional emotional pain for loved ones in the immediate aftermath of a shooting,” the paper said.
Beard said the next steps in her research will include an analysis of television news reports of gun violence from 2021, the year the study was conducted, as well as whether race- and place-based disparities play a role in harmful reporting and whether there is a connection between harmful reporting and violence itself.