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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Luke Verdecchia

Changing the narrative on gun violence: the new ethics of covering gun violence and trauma

Image of two people's hands holding one another
Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

A shift is underway in how journalists cover episodes of gun violence and other forms of trauma in the United States. New ethical considerations are redefining the role journalists play in telling these stories and increasing the amount of community-based coverage, with journalists often building trust by reporting on the long-term effects of violence in their own communities.

“I don’t think it’s a hopeless picture,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says. “I think there actually is a lot of innovation going on in this area.”

According to Shapiro, the question of which types of gun violence get covered is something that has changed over time, with journalists now placing greater focus on historically under-covered types of gun violence such as suicide, an effort that gives people a more accurate picture of where the biggest threats lie.

“We kind of define as news the thing that seems unusual, notable, new, right? That’s what makes it news,” Shapiro says. “This leads journalism too often to focus on the most spectacular kinds of carnage and ignore or pay insufficient attention to the most common and ordinary threats.”

According to Shapiro, the increase in the number of episodes of gun violence in the U.S. is partly responsible for coverage that favors larger, more horrific acts of violence. According to data gathered from Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings, at least 15,292 people were fatally shot in the U.S. in 2019. This figure excludes suicides. Also driving the coverage is the increasingly polarized debate around gun violence and about which measures, if any, the government should take to prevent it.

And yet the way journalists see their role in covering these horrific acts of violence is also changing.

“There are a lot of reporters, including at mainstream media outlets, that have been trying over the course of the last five or 10 years to do a different kind of reporting on gun violence,” Shapiro says, “to do the kind of reporting that focuses on the community impact of gun violence beyond these spectacular breaking news interruption kinds of stories.”

Among those reporters is John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter at the Washington Post, who has written several articles about gun violence that focus on community effects.

In one article titled “How many children are affected by school gun violence in America?”, Cox argues that death toll figures that follow episodes of gun violence fail to capture the long lasting effects on those who witness such carnage and survive. “Beginning with Columbine in 1999,” Cox writes, “more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a year-long Washington Post analysis.”

“Many are never the same,” Cox adds.

Cox’s reporting provides readers with information that can change behavior or even inspire action. Cox goes beyond reporting the numbers, succeeding in helping the public more fully understand the issue. This type of reporting helps policymakers and community leaders better understand how they can support and heal the community following an act of violence.

Shapiro says that reporting on episodes of gun violence has too often focused solely on nurturing sources within the criminal justice system, such as police officers.

“If our sources are only people from the criminal justice system, then we’re missing half the story,” Shapiro says. “You need to have sources that are dealing with the impact of gun violence every single day. And if you’re talking to those sources patiently over time, that will change what you think the story about gun violence really is.”

Another reporter engaging in this sort of community-based reporting is Peter Nickeas, a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who covered violence and trauma for the Tribune’s breaking news desk for seven years.

In one article titled “‘Staggering’ number of children exposed to violence in Chicago; new study says kid population greater in high-homicide areas,” Nickeas reports that the number of children in Chicago living in areas with higher rates of homicides has increased, even though the overall number of homicides in the city has decreased over the last few years.

“Over the Fourth of July holiday, Felix Kombwa brought the children he mentors to a festival where a law-enforcement exhibit allowed visitors to sit in a squad car, try on police gear and chat with officers,” Nickeas writes. “But the fireworks, the presence of the officers and the sight of their weapons all scared the children, Kombwa said. They mistook the fireworks for gunshots and thought the guns, though holstered, were ‘too loud.’”

Like Cox’s reporting, Nickeas succeeds in helping the public understand the long-lasting effects of gun violence in their community. Nickeas’s reporting also helps the public understand where the threats are.

The kind of reporting that Cox and Nickeas are doing is notable because it defines the role of journalists as more than merely news gatherers and disseminators. This type of reporting asks readers to see journalists as fellow members of the community and has the potential to build trust.

Another example of innovative reporting on gun violence is The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the U.S. The Trace has produced several stories that represent a wide range of angles that often go uncovered.

In a recent article titled “When Protesters Carry Guns, Does It Impede Others’ Free Speech?”, reporter Olivia Li recounts how a January rally in Richmond, Va. ( in which pro-gun activists were protesting a series of gun reform bills going through the state General Assembly) subsequently prevented a group of counter protesters from attending, fearing violence. Many of the pro-gun activists in attendance were utilizing Virginia’s open carry law.

“Many of them were armed. The specter of a massive open carry demonstration was difficult for anyone to ignore,” Li writes, “but the day was also significant because of the people not in attendance outside the state Capitol grounds.”

This powerful lead offers a unique angle in its reporting on gun violence, focusing on the implications on freedom of assembly, a key pillar of democratic and civic life in the U.S. Li offers readers a look at the free speech implications resulting from open carry demonstrations and the potentially chilling effects on speech, and by extension, on democracy.

Li asks the reader to consider a distinct effect of the increased polarization around the gun debate and how that affects the communities in which people live.

These are just a few examples of individual reporters and news organizations engaging in a more thoughtful type of journalism—reporting that is grounded not only in informing people where the threats are but in uncovering the many ways communities are affected by acts of violence. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

When ordinary people become a part of the news: A Q&A with Ruth Palmer

Photo of book cover "Becoming the News" by Ruth PalmerJournalists are constantly seeking out ordinary people as news subjects to bring humanity to their news stories and help their audience better connect with the narrative being told. Reading a collection of personal narratives of how people are going to vote, for instance, can be much more meaningful than simply reading the results of the latest poll to see where the candidates stand in the race.

However, there is a host of ethical dilemmas to consider when speaking to ordinary people as news subjects. I spoke with Ruth Palmer, an assistant professor of communications at IE University in Madrid and Segovia and author of Becoming the News, a book that studies how ordinary people make sense of becoming the subjects of news stories.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What responsibility, if any, do journalists have to help potential news subjects weigh the pros and cons of participating in a news story?

I think it’s important to keep in mind that not all news stories are equally risky for participants. It’s also important to keep in mind that not all subjects are the same. In a situation where a journalist is interacting with an ordinary citizen who does not have a lot of experience interacting with journalists, it’s important for the journalist to help the subject be aware of potential negative consequences of speaking out about that topic. I think that that has become more important now that news stories circulate on the internet. Because this material circulates online and audiences are often reading these news stories using the same devices they can use to then comment on them, anybody who speaks to a journalist for a controversial story has to worry about potential online harassment. So it’s important for them to help subjects prepare themselves for potential harassment.

What steps can journalists take to make sure they tell news subjects’ stories accurately?

Ruth Palmer

By virtue of their different positions in the relationship, journalists’ and subjects’ goals for a news story are often at odds. The journalist is looking to produce a particular kind of story whereas subjects have a different set of objectives. They want to communicate a particular thing or educate the public or publicize a particular venture. Subjects tend to dislike it if they feel that journalists are pushing them to say a particular thing. And this is something that actually happens a lot because of the pressures that journalists are under. So, journalists should avoid pushing subjects to say particular things to fit into pre-written stories. I think recording as often as possible is really important. I think another thing that’s really important is for journalists to try to manage subjects’ expectations. I think that they can make it clear to the subject that they, the journalist, will be picking and choosing what aspects of an interview are included in a story. And it’s very easy to prepare subjects for something like that. Subjects are not going to be discouraged or turned off by that.

How should journalists balance various ethical considerations—such as private citizens’ rights to security and privacy—against the public’s right to know the information in question?

The subject’s privacy and wellbeing should play a very big role in a journalist’s consideration. In most situations, journalists need to very seriously consider whether damage to a private citizen’s privacy and integrity is really worth the public good. There are some Scandinavian countries where journalistic norms are that you don’t name ordinary citizens who have been accused of crimes unless the crime is a very public one like an act of terror. I think that more American newspapers should consider that, and more American news outlets should step back and really consider to what degree the public has a right to know about a lot of this. What’s the public benefit? You have to weigh that against the in some cases very long-term negative repercussions on a private citizen’s life. In the U.S., there’s no right to be forgotten the way that there is in Europe, and so those news stories can just come up over and over and over.

You talk about how when subjects see themselves in a news story, they are seeing a version of themselves that is both familiar and unfamiliar to them. What do you mean by this, and how can journalists help news subjects prepare for this experience?

The way I describe it in the book is uncanny. For news subjects it’s weird to see themselves in the news, because they recognize that this is their name, but often they’re seeing a version of themselves that has been at least somewhat distorted by the news production process so that it’s recognizably them, but also just different enough to seem kind of alien. I think to a certain extent it’s just sort of inevitable. It’s not always terribly unpleasant for people. It’s mostly just weird. The one thing that might help is practice. When I spoke to people who had a little bit more experience being quoted and speaking to journalists, they were less weirded out by it.

You talk about reputation being social currency. What responsibility, if any, do journalists have to make sure they don’t sully the reputations of news subjects?

Depending on what the news story is about, it may be appropriate to sully the reputation of a subject. However, I would say that the bar should be set very high. In terms of what journalists can do to avoid damaging reputations, one thing they can avoid doing is quoting subjects out of context and obviously avoid misquoting them in ways that could potentially be interpreted as making them look really bad. Journalists should be very sensitive to that, especially if the story that they’re writing has a lot of moral weight with the audience. That’s when reputations suffer the most damage is when audiences interpret a story in moral terms. This is also where reporters may want to prepare subjects for potential fallout by advising them on how they can protect themselves online.

Finally, since we are in an election year, what should journalists be aware of as they approach voters for interviews?

As the country becomes increasingly polarized, for voters speaking out about their political views, the risks increase, because they’re entering into a public conversation that the audience feels very strongly about. In that regard, I think that journalists need to judge whether their subject is someone who has a lot of experience speaking to journalists and is therefore prepared for what it means to talk publicly about their vote. Journalists need to seriously consider preparing their subjects for potential negative online feedback. That can mean advising subjects to increase their privacy settings on their social media or hide their contact information. I think that a lot of people who have never interacted with journalists before tend to be very suspicious of their motives, and showing care is one of the best possible ways for them to combat the widespread mistrust.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.