Crime, Policing, & Gun Violence: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated November 2023
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on crime, policing, and gun violence published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
Language & Word Choice
May 19, 2022
Use scare quotes around “replacement theory,” avoid adding “great,” and avoid capitalization. Using quotation marks around a phrase when they’re not required (as in a direct quote) is a way of subtly casting doubt or illegitimacy on that phrase. Capitalizing a phrase to create a proper noun, on the other hand, connotes legitimacy. Finally, “great” connotes, well, greatness which is certainly not the case here.
Use “conspiracy theory” carefully. The term, historically, connotes a wide range of theories from the silly to the serious. It may be an appropriate label for “replacement theory,” but that itself is so closely tied to the larger worldview of white supremacy that journalists should be careful not to mix the two. In 2020, Buzzfeed News editors explained why they refer to QAnon as a “collective delusion” rather than a conspiracy theory based on its complexity and larger implications: “We are discussing a mass of people who subscribe to a shared set of values and debunked ideas, which inform their beliefs and actions.” I think that’s worth considering when referring to the larger network of white supremacy driven partially by conspiratorial thinking.
Avoid “lone wolf” as a descriptor for mass shooters. It may be the case that a perpetrator has acted alone or is reportedly unengaged in their social environs like school or work. This moniker, however, belies the community that white supremacists and domestic terrorists find online on their paths to radicalization. The “lone wolf” name treats an event like the May 2022 Buffalo shooting as an isolated incident rather than one tied to a deep and ongoing history of racist violence in the U.S.
Violence motivated by white supremacy is terrorism in its basic, if not legal, definition. Newsrooms should use the language of terrorism when referring to broader trends in ideologically-motivated racist violence, if not in reference to suspects who have not been formally charged with “terrorism.”
Avoid calling writings attributed to an extremist “manifestos.” Both NPR and the AP Stylebook wrote in May 2022 that they don’t use the term to describe racist screeds because it lends legitimacy and gravitas to despicable writings. I, frankly, am not convinced its contemporary popular connotation is one of gravitas in the U.S., but in the U.K. the word “manifesto” is used regularly to describe official political documents. Thus, I’m willing to be persuaded, as words like “diatribe,” “screed,” “document” and “writings” work just as well.
August 4, 2022
Accurate reporting on public safety is of dire importance because what we know about our communities determines the decisions we make for them. Below you’ll find a few tips on reporting on crime and poverty based on recent media trends.
Do not use pictures of people experiencing homelessness to illustrate stories about crime. Homelessness is not a crime. Using photos this way attaches stigma to people experiencing homelessness and criminalizes those in need of support.
Contextualize crime rates. Yes, homicide rates have risen in the U.S. since 2019. That is real and has been felt by many. It is also true, however, that current rates are significantly lower than they were in the 1990s and 1980s. Presenting one bit of information without the other paints an incomplete picture.
Challenge definitions of “public safety.” Whether they are residents, political candidates, or local officials, have your sources define “public safety” when discussing its presence or lack thereof. It’s a vague term that can be used to describe anything from real rising rates of particular crimes to feeling unsafe due to visible poverty. It’s important that audiences are provided this context.
Describe solutions — and what hasn’t worked. If politicians and local officials are presenting new budgets or legislation aimed at increasing public safety, determine and acknowledge whether those efforts have been effective in the past or in other locales. For instance, research has repeatedly shown police budgets and size of the force do not predict local crime rates.
Remember that news media influences public perception. Polls about how concerned a community is about crime only reflect the stories being told about and within that community. They don’t necessarily reflect reality. For example, as Bloomberg reported, media coverage of shootings in NYC recently skyrocketed in proportion to the number of shootings themselves.
October 13, 2022
A common complaint from those of us who examine news media is how coverage of crime so often features just the voices of police. This happens despite ample evidence that, as an institution, policing in the U.S. has a long history of perpetuating lies to the public and to the media. That’s why I was so happy to see a new resource published on avoiding common pitfalls of this reporting.
Don’t Be a Copagandist!: A Resource for Media on Covering “Crime” and Violence is a quick read full of important advice and additional reading and research. It was compiled by Mia Henry, Lewis Raven Wallace, and Andrea J. Ritchie and I’d highly recommend bookmarking it.
While we’re considering law enforcement narratives, check out The Appeal’s guide to this year’s FBI data on crime — and how it is manipulated for political purposes.
March 30, 2023
I’ve highlighted resources for reporting on mass shootings and gun violence many times before — you can see previous recommendations in our archive on the topic.
Today I want to highlight two more:
- Kelly McBride of Poynter wrote specifically about how to cover the Nashville shooting in response to what she calls “reckless decisions” in coverage. Pay special attention to what she writes about reporting on mental health and gender identity as it pertains to the shooter.
- The Journalist’s Resource regularly publishes and synthesizes research that is pertinent to coverage of current events. They have an archive of research on guns and gun policy that all reporters should be familiar with. Don’t miss it.
November 16, 2023
The CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance has been studying the impact of New York’s pretrial reform legislation, including how local media covered it. They analyzed eight outlets across the state and found that they “disproportionately focused on perspectives that were critical of the legislation, and emphasized the perceived negative impacts to community safety.” Read the report summary to learn how the framing of this coverage built into a larger negative narrative.
Policing 2020: Local news reporting during a year of racial justice protests
Media, Inequality and Change Center
Our friends at the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania have released an in-depth content analysis of a full year of coverage of policing by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. They investigated sourcing practices, how police, civilians, and protesters are portrayed, and much more. A summary of their important findings is available here and the full report is available here.
Don’t Let the Cameras Turn Away
Brooke Baldwin, The Atlantic
I’ve Covered Seven Mass Shootings. These Are the Memories That Haunt Me.
Jenny Deam, Pro Publica
In June 2022, Axios published a chart showing how online engagement on stories about the May 2022 Uvalde shooting took a nosedive after a few days, paling in comparison to attention paid to 2018’s Parkland shooting. (Not to mention how little comparative attention was paid to the May 2022 Buffalo shooting by a racist extremist.) It’s damning and concerning. Is the attention span of the U.S. so fragile that even the killing of 19 children and two teachers in their classroom can’t hook us? Or are we so desensitized to gun violence (there were at least 20 mass shootings in the first few weeks after Uvalde) that we no longer care? Or maybe we’re so exhausted by the trauma of it all that we’ve run out of empathy? Regardless of the reason, we cannot turn away. Brooke Baldwin at the Atlantic urges TV networks to forgo their usual assignment priorities to stick with the story. And Jenny Deam at ProPublica recounts the seven mass shootings she’s covered. Her reflections underline how the impact and trauma stay with us, regardless of the churn of the news cycle.
Alternatives to Police and Prisons: Activists Share How to Better Address Violence
As the saying goes, those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. So who did Teen Vogue ask about our current response to violence and what should change? A group of 11 young activists. Newsrooms everywhere can learn from this by amplifying voices that often go unheard over those that we hear often, like politicians and law enforcement.
7 Tips for Journalists from Restorative-Justice Practitioners
Allen Arthur, Free Press
A must-read guide written by Allen Arthur of the Solutions Journalism Network. It will challenge your understanding of the journalism profession and how it can been reimagined as a care practice.
Halloween Is Over and It Looks Like No One Got Fentanyl Candy After All
Jerry Iannelli, The Appeal
You may have heard — erroneously — that the new “rainbow fentanyl” which hit the drug market might end up in your child’s Halloween haul this year. Police departments around the country fearmongered about it and Fox News helped spread the misinformation. The Appeal has the story on how this moral panic began and why it was shared so widely.
‘Like I’m a nobody’: Breaking news coverage of shootings is dehumanizing and delays progress, per new Temple study
Ben Seal, Billy Penn
A bit of transparency meant to dissuade you from believing I have any bias in choosing this story: Billy Penn is one of Resolve Philly’s partners. They also wrote up a great summary of new academic research from Temple University trauma surgeon Jessica Beard on the impact of news coverage on victims of shootings. Beard found that people injured by firearms often find subsequent coverage of their experience dehumanizing and actively harmful. Anyone who touches crime coverage needs to listen up.
How the Right Turns Every Mass Shooting Into a Mass Distraction
Alex Shepard, The New Republic
In support of this essay from The New Republic on partisan reaction to mass shootings, I’ll leave this excerpt:
“In this demented frame, the search for solutions, the calling-out of bigotry, and the acknowledgment of chilling rise of political violence are all unacceptable. There is never any attempt to consider what should be done or, for that matter, to observe the right’s own efforts to politicize tragedies they see as beneficial to a preferred narrative that seeks to drive the public in the direction of hating the people who are trying to put an end to gun violence more than the shooters themselves.”
The Blast Effect: This is how bullets from an AR-15 blow the body apart
N. Kirkpatrick, Atthar Mirza and Manuel Canales, The Washington Post
Ironically enough, in the days before the Nashville shooting the Washington Post had published a package of stories on the impact of the AR-15 on the U.S. The entire package is well worth a dive. But the most impactful piece is likely the 3D animation of how the AR-15’s bullets destroyed the bodies of two real children — Noah Pozner, 6, and Peter Wang, 15 — who died in the Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings, respectively. It’s devastating and difficult to digest, but it provides a true understanding of the violence that we are inflicting on each other via inaction. I commend the Post for their commitment to this reporting, and to the parents of Noah and Peter for their bravery in consenting to this piece.
Most New Yorkers Don’t Get the Trump Treatment at Arraignment
The Marshall Project and The City
I am so glad The City and The Marshall Project teamed up for this story. They asked real people (aka not celebrities and high-profile politicians) what arraignment was really like for them. Their stories expose the many different tiers of justice our system doles out.
Unfortunately, there is often reason for Americans to address coverage of mass shootings. On The Media, a podcast from WNYC, has an evergreen checklist for breaking news consumers that always makes for a good reference.
Finally, a few think-pieces that deserve your attention:
- “I survived a mass shooting. Here’s my advice to other journalists.” by Selene San Felice at Poynter
- “When Coverage Is What They Want: Covering Mass Shootings without Perpetuating Them” by Natalie Yahr at the Center for Journalism Ethics
- “Coverage of mass shootings threatens public safety. Let’s fix it.” by Miles Kohrman and Katherine Reed at CJR
Unfortunately this trend, pointed out by Northwestern’s Dr. Steven Thrasher, is all too common in news media. Black victims of violence are aged up while white perpetrators of violence are aged down.
Couldn’t agree more with journalist Lakeidra Chavis. The quotes from a Uvalde teacher in the referenced NBC News story from Mike Hixenbaugh beg the question of necessity. Journalists attempting to paint a broader picture of tragedy should be well-versed in trauma-informed reporting styles. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s style guide and interview guide are good places to start.
CNN’s Brian Stelter made some tone-deaf comments about how the public reacts to confusing news stories like the Uvalde shooting, and journalist Karen K. Ho is completely correct in the asserting reporters’ role in helping us all. It calls to mind the old news adage, “if you weren’t right, you weren’t first.”
Revealing reports from local media have shown that in the first month after the shooting, Uvalde police lied to and misled the public about their response to the mass shooter who killed 21 in an elementary school. But as the New York Times, Boston Review, CNN, The New Republic, Slate, and others have documented, law enforcement as a culture has a long history of lying. This is why reporter Wesley Lowery’s comment is so important. Journalists must learn from this history and seek to verify police statements like they do the statements of others.
Human rights lawyer Qasim Rashid, Esq. makes a painful point about our “justice” system by comparing the fates of Jayland Walker, a Black man killed by police in Ohio, and Crimo, the white Highland Park parade shooter.
Writer and podcast host Brandi Collins-Dexter is referring to a story from over the weekend about an “extortion threat” against a TV series in production in Baltimore. The official story has changed significantly since initial reports; apparently the threat was greatly overstated and statements about the brandishing of a gun were retracted. But, Googling “Baltimore Natalie Portman” (the show’s star) still surfaces many headlines with the original story in tact.
Collins-Dexter’s point is well made. A viral story can stick with audiences even if the story turns out to be false. When these stories seem believable about a place due to ongoing media narratives, they’re even stickier. It is journalists’ responsibility to be right, not first, and tell accurate stories about our communities without buying into these narratives ourselves. (Of course, not building stories based solely off of police reports helps, too.)
This Associated Press tweet about the killing of Elijah McClain in 2019 is an egregious example of passive voice being used to skirt the truth. It calls the entire event a “police encounter” and does not assign an actor to the verbs “injected” or “forcibly restrained.” As Evan Sutton’s rewrite shows, it’s just not that difficult to assign action to the proper subjects.
Civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis (a favorite follow of mine) brings up a great point. Wells Fargo will be paying $3.7 billion to settle charges that it wrongfully seized homes and cars from customers, among other harms it committed against “millions of American families,” according to the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The way enormous wrongdoing by large financial institutions is reported on is far different from, say, the dramatic coverage of shoplifting we’ve seen over the past year. It’s worth contemplating why white collar crime that affects millions receives a less sensational tone than petty crime.
In responding to a Walgreens executive walking back the chain’s comments on retail theft, journalist Zito Madu is pointing out a pattern. News media often disproportionally amplify stories on certain social problems, especially those related to public safety. This happens for a number of reasons, including two standby measures of “newsworthiness” that are easily described by newsroom idioms: What drives audience engagement (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and novelty or newness (“‘Plane lands safely’ is not a news story”). Regardless of the intent behind this pattern, its impact is clear: U.S. audiences often overestimate crime rates. For a great read explaining this phenomenon, check out civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis’s most recent newsletter.
This issue with the tweet quoted here by writer Luke O’Neil is clear. The CBS report it links to does not give any details that put either party at legal fault for the crash. However the tweet gives “the bicyclist” the action of “collided,” a sentence structure that frames the person’s death as their own fault. It also personifies the person riding the bike but not the person driving the car that killed her; she collided simply with “a car.”
O’Neil calls this “exonerative voice,” a reference to “past exonerative tense.” The term was coined by political analyst William Schneider to describe language that skirts around cause and effect to obscure who is at fault. That tense or voice winds up in news reports far too often, especially around crime reporting and police wrongdoing. (A memorable McSweeney’s piece from 2020 provides chilling examples of news-speak following George Floyd’s murder.) But, as O’Neil points out, it’s liberally applied to car crashes to shield audiences from the consequences of car culture.
Podcast No Lie with Brian Tyler Cohen added to the above graphic from the Financial Times to illustrate the impact of Congress allowing the national assault weapons ban to lapse in 2004. This context is crucial for journalists to include whenever they report on the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S.
Tweets like this one from Georgetown professor Don Moynihan always remind me of the research that shows how news media exaggerates and sensationalizes crime rates (see examples below). It’s well-established that crime reporting is connected to audiences’ fears of crime. It’s hard not to assume this fearmongering plays into the dramatic (and sometimes fatal) shootings of innocents like Kaylin Gillis and Ralph Yarl.
- Many Americans Are Convinced Crime Is Rising In The U.S. They’re Wrong. (FiveThirtyEight)
- Stories about crime are rife with misinformation and racism, critics say (NPR)
- Why The Public Perception Of Crime Exceeds The Reality (NPR)
- Crime coverage on Fox News halved once US midterms were over (The Guardian)
Looking to change your newsroom’s crime coverage? Maybe give Poynter’s upcoming course Transforming Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism a try.
And just one more. I haven’t stopped thinking about appellate lawyer Raffi Melkonian’s response to the recent mass shooting at a Texas mall. What would the news cycle look like if we treated mass shootings conducted by right wing extremists as the terrorism that they are?
November 4, 2021
Above is the initial headline attached to a New York Times story about the homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two men and wounded another during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. Rittenhouse’s attorneys argued that he acted in self-defense. At no point would a verdict in this case declare Rittenhouse a “hero” and it is appalling for the Times to suggest that, if found not guilty of homicide charges, a person who fatally shot two protesters would be declared a hero by default. This headline, which also made it to print, was quickly changed online to the version below. If the initial headline was attempting to lay out the defense’s position in this trial, the updated version does so more accurately.
December 9, 2021
This headline from CBS Dallas-Fort Worth made the rounds on Twitter, with special attention paid to how a tweet from the newsroom framed this as a feel-good canine hero story. Most pointed out how the story centers the K-9 officer, rather than the woman whose money was taken. As the story says, the woman was not arrested, yet her money was seized and “police say it will be subject to the civil asset forfeiture process.”
That process allows police to seize property they allege is or will be involved in a crime, but the property owner does not need to be arrested or convicted of a crime for police to keep that property. Abuse of this system is well-documented. The story fails to mention or support any allegations that the cash was connected to crime but, thanks to the hagiographic treatment of the K-9 officer involved, the audience is meant to assume criminality. Revising the headline to forefront civil asset forfeiture without centering the canine, as in the example below, would be a fairer telling.
Police Seize More Than $100K Subject to Civil Asset Forfeiture At Dallas Love Field Airport
January 6, 2022
This Headline Check comes courtesy of Global Investigative Journalism Network editor Reed F. Richardson, who tweeted this image. He wrote, “Hard to find a better example of why a strong independent/local media is vital. Here, @KnockDotLA’s ‘s headline (and story) is a model of hard-hitting accuracy and necessary context, while the NYTimes offers up an excuse-making mess that practically pins a medal on the cop.”
Using passive voice or assigning action to things like guns and bullets instead of the people wielding them is a common way for newsrooms to avoid blaming police for their own misconduct (i.e. the bullet killed Valentina, not the officer). But the additional introduction of praise for the officer in question in the Times’ headline seeks to exonerate him before an investigation has even occurred. It’s yet another example of media’s biased treatment of police versus those they shoot and kill.
May 26, 2022
The headline above, from KXAN in Texas, refers to a press conference hosted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. This headline focuses on the act of O’Rourke’s interruption rather than his reason for doing so. It also uses the word “crashes” to characterize that act which is a negative frame, like someone who crashes a wedding uninvited.
This second headline, from NBC News, also focuses on the act of interruption over the reason for it. By ignoring the why, it turns this story of a political candidate trying to drive change into one of palace intrigue and political maneuvering. But, at least “interrupts” is a more neutral choice than “crashes.
The third headline here from Politico focuses on the why of this interruption: O’Rourke was confronting Abbott and company about their plans (or lack thereof) to take meaningful action on gun violence. Politico does this by naming the subject (gun violence) and using the word “challenges” to frame how O’Rourke and Abbott are on opposing sides of this debate.
June 9, 2022
A bevy of speakers impacted directly by the 2022 shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo testified before U.S. Congress in the weeks after. Like the Buzzfeed headline above, many outlets referred to their stories as “harrowing” or “gut-wrenching,” focusing on the emotions and images brought up by their testimony.
The point of this event, of course, was to sway Congress with personal stories. So what does highlighting the emotional side of the testimony do for news audiences? Do they need to be convinced of just how horrible these shootings were? Likely not. High emotions do make us want to click, however.
What audiences truly need to know from this testimony are the solutions victims of gun violence are calling for from Congress. The tears and gory descriptions aren’t for anyone’s entertainment; they are a call to action for a specific group of lawmakers. Thankfully, that’s what the CNBC headline below focuses on. Tighter gun laws is the point of it all for these speakers.
July 7, 2022
One of the core tenants of responsible reporting on mass shootings is to avoid glorifying the shooter. The reason is two-fold: media attention and notoriety is often one of the goals of a mass shooting and that attention can inspire copycats. The headline above, from TODAY, not only focuses on the Highland Park shooter, but provides unnecessary details that soften his image. The man’s childhood Cub Scout attendance does nothing for U.S. residents grappling with the gun violence epidemic.
There’s a lot that audiences do need to know in the aftermath of a tragedy like this, including information about the victims and how to help their families; how the gunman in question was able to obtain his deadly weapon; what the police response was; and how this could be prevented in the future. Another important angle of mass shootings is what the community affected by the tragedy thinks should happen next.
The headlines below, from Axios, NBC 5 Chicago, CBS News and Block Club Chicago, respectively, all focus on the actions the Highland Park community and their lawmakers want to take now. Stories that speak to that community response are particularly important, because they demonstrate solidarity with those impacted by amplifying what they think should change. This moves us closer to journalism’s ideals of helping society understand and solve its collective problems.
December 8, 2022
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention Thursday morning. Griner had been imprisoned for months on drug charges after less than a gram of hashish oil was found in her luggage at a Russian airport in February. U.S. authorities have been negotiating her release and were successful in arranging a swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
There are many facets to this story that news organizations will want to cover. These include, among other things, Griner’s treatment and being sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, how authorities negotiated the swap, and the consequences of releasing an international arms dealer. The headlines below show how two outlets chose which to emphasize at first blush.
The headline above, from CBS News, emphasizes Griner’s name and release above all else, of course. But its second-order emphasis is on the prisoner swap, detailing its “1-for-1” nature and even naming the arms dealer, who is unlikely to be familiar to most audiences.
The headline below, from the Wall Street Journal, mentions the “prisoner release deal.” But the second-order emphasis here is on the detail that Griner was released not just from Russia but from a “penal colony.” This subtly emphasizes her treatment by authorities as the harsh life in Russian penal colonies has been the subject of recent news.
Neither of these headlines is inaccurate by any means. They simply serve to illustrate how newsrooms make slightly different choices in reporting a complex breaking news story.
January 12, 2023
Karon Blake, a child from Washington, D.C., was killed by an as-yet-unidentified man last week. The man shot Blake allegedly because he thought the 13-year-old was breaking into cars.
When the news first came to light, few details about the shooter were known. Multiple headlines, including the one below from Fox 5 in D.C., simply called the person “homeowner.”
To be frank, this is an incredibly strange noun to use to describe someone who shot and killed a child. Without evidence to support that the shooter’s homeownership status had something to do with the incident — initial reports do not make this connection, as far as I have seen — there’s no reason to choose that word over others.
We could speculate that reporters had only information from police sources to go off of and thus parroted the “homeowner” language. You may have noticed, however, that in this newsletter I’ve already used the words “person” and “shooter” instead, both of which would be appropriate given information from early articles. “Resident” might even be a reasonably assumed substitute for “homeowner.” In any case, The Washington Post used the word “man” in a report from the same day, citing police sources. The Buzzfeed headline below from two days later also used “man.”
So we have to ask, what does the shooter’s homeownership status have to do with this incident? One could read it as an implication that the man was potentially defending his property. That frame comes dangerously close, in my opinion, to justifying his actions. It could also be read as juxtaposing the power of someone who owns property with a child accused of a property crime. The dynamic there speaks for itself. Either way, considering the lack of early details provided by police, the use of that moniker is certainly inappropriate when others were available.
In the days since, police have revealed that the unnamed man is a D.C. government employee. That phrase has now taken over in lieu of the man’s name in many headlines.
January 26, 2023
After any mass shooting, newsrooms revisit the debate over whether ordinary individuals should be allowed to purchase and use deadly weapons. The headlines below are all from the Washington Post — from two separate stories.
This first headline, above, refers to the multiple mass shootings that have taken place in California in the last few days. The “limits” here are, presumably, the law’s ability to halt mass shootings altogether. By emphasizing what the law can’t control in a country overrun with guns, this framing comes very close to putting their overall use into question.
Oddly enough, this headline was updated Wednesday afternoon, a day after it was published, to:
I’d argue this version is actually worse. Instead of merely implying that gun laws might be ineffective, it baldly states it. This is a frustrating take considering media messages go a long way toward helping communities understand what change is possible — by framing it as possible instead of predetermined. This type of headline actually adds to the futility it describes.
An even worse earlier version of this headline, “California shootings came despite some of the nation’s toughest gun laws,” could easily be misread in an “I told you so” tone. I’m glad it was replaced, though its updates haven’t been much better.
The second headline, above, almost serves as an answer to the implied question of our first examples. No, in a country where estimates suggest there are 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, laws about the use of those guns likely can’t eliminate all violent and illegal use. But that doesn’t mean they don’t prevent a significant amount of violence and save countless lives.
To folks on either side of the gun safety debate, these two headlines might look “biased” to those points of view. But I would say the second story’s is the fairest as it assesses the realities of our laws without putting their mere existence into question.
February 16, 2023
A shooting at Michigan State University earlier this week left three students dead and 5 more people wounded. One of the Washington Post’s stories following the tragedy featured the following headline.
I would hope at this point that this wouldn’t need to be said, but I suppose it does: the common, utilitarian, and beloved practice of college open door policies is not what puts students at risk of being shot to death.
The number of guns floating around this country and our lack of political will to put safety before the profits of gun manufacturers puts students at risk of being shot to death.
Perhaps the reporters writing about what security measures can and can’t do to prevent mass shootings needed a new angle to write about. Perhaps they truly believe there is an ideal number of locked doors and armed security teams that would keep us all safe from gun violence. But, after reading their colleagues’ reflections on years of covering school shootings (a must-read, if you can manage it), I would hope they’d come to a different conclusion.
The headline below, from the Detroit News, provides a more impactful framing by emphasizing what communities want. As you can see, they’re not calling for more locked doors.
February 23, 2023
The Washington Post published the above headline earlier this week. The story describes how a lack of consistent data on police shootings makes it impossible to establish cause and effect. Reasonable enough. But the phrasing “nobody knows why” stopped me in my tracks. Well, I thought, that depends on what you mean by “knows.”
How do we know what we know? The field of epistemology (a very fun rabbit hole, if I may say so myself) seeks to understand this and to distinguish justified belief from opinion. Many arguments in journalism over objectivity boil down to this question: whose claims are evidence-based and whose are “biased?” In mainstream journalism, evidence is implicitly defined as empirical data or anecdotal data from those imbued with institutional expertise and authority. However, if you have data or expertise and you are particularly invested in a cause, that evidence might be dismissed as “advocacy.”
As the Post story explains, we don’t have empirical data that specifically links one cause to the rise in police killings across the country. But we do have data on the consequences faced by police involved in these killings (sometimes jail time, sometimes a raise) and data on how early police claims in these cases are often “misleading” (sometimes lacking detail, sometimes outright lies).
Other data we have includes:
- Police disproportionately kill Black people and 21% of all victims are in a mental illness crisis
- Trust in police has grown while trust in the Black Lives Matter movement has fallen
- White supremacist and militia groups have infiltrated U.S. police and law enforcement often fails to respond to racism in the ranks
- Police budgets have actually grown in many areas over the past few years
- Police unions work to obscure abuses of power and prevent reforms
- Training of U.S. police focuses on weapons, marksmanship, and a “warrior mentality” over de-escalation and communication
Again, we can’t use these data points to empirically point to what is driving this rise. But I think, as a society, we can put two and two together here. We can make some inferences about how police are trained, how they are shielded from accountability, and what ideologies shape them, and place that against the cultural background of polarization.
Does that constitute “knowing?” Clearly not in a way that meets the Post’s editorial standards. But it explains why a phrase like “nobody knows why” feels so jarring to those engaged with this news. Do we have no idea why this is happening, or do we have many ideas? Perhaps some trends are too complex for a data-based conclusion that fits a newspaper’s idea of evidence. Journalists need to figure out how to communicate this type of knowledge to their audiences.
Either way, a discussion on the rise in police killings doesn’t need to determine a cause. The headline from The Guardian, below, does this well.
March 30, 2023
I frankly can’t think of a more irresponsible way to report on gun policy following a school shooting than the headline above from WSMV4 in Nashville. Of course, the actions of lawmakers representing an area where a tragedy has occurred are newsworthy. But you can report on a congressman’s statements without framing them as factual and definitive.
Regardless of polarization and trust issues in U.S. politics, constituents still must rely on their representatives to relay the realities of the political world in which they work. Their position alone confers authority and expertise. Thus it’s critical that journalists don’t amplify elected officials’ isolated statements when they’re factually incorrect, as Rep. Tim Burchett is here. There is plenty that Congress can do to curb the gun violence epidemic — the GOP just chooses not to do it.
Additionally, there is plenty of research that shows gun laws do make a huge difference and save lives. Studies have shown that state gun laws can help reduce the gun deaths of children, red flag laws are associated with fewer suicides by firearm, and licensing laws paired with background checks are associated with lower homicide and suicide rates. (There might be even more national research if the NRA hadn’t successfully campaigned Congress to block the CDC from research that would “promote gun control” in 1996.)
The headline above from CNN is a little bit better. It explains that there are in fact gun control measures that lawmakers could take action on. It also underlines that it is lawmakers who have the power to make this change.
It’s missing something, however, that Yahoo! gets right, below. Historically and currently, the blockade in U.S. Congress to passing legislation that could reduce gun deaths is the Republican party, not all “lawmakers.” Yahoo! calls them out by name and also uses the word “downplay” to describe their inaction as intentional. (In contrast, compare the use of lawmakers being “reluctant” above, like they’re considering a change.)
If there’s one thing we can do better as an industry to help our audiences understand and solve their collective problems, it is to be clear about accountability. Our frames and headlines must plainly state who has the power to make change and what systems are stopping change from happening.
July 6, 2023
Since it’s summer and school is out, I wanted to address a type of story audiences often encounter this time of year: “teenagers gather in a public space.” Stories in this vein often originate in big cities and range in seriousness from “crowds of teens annoy others” to news of property damage or even gun violence.
A Chicago story fitting this theme recently went viral for its hyperbolic headline, captured via Twitter, below. The headline from WGN9 was eventually changed — once it was repeatedly pointed out that the teens did damage vehicles and obstruct traffic but did not destroy an entire neighborhood.
I don’t point out this example to minimize the danger and damage that can occur during events like these. But it’s equally important that journalists don’t overstate the impact of teens gathering in public and feed a narrative that demonizes and even criminalizes them for simply existing. That’s especially true when the teens in question are primarily children of color, who are more likely to be victims of police brutality than their white peers.
The CBS Philly story below about a similar incident provides an example of how subtle language choices can support a harmful narrative. Both the headline and the body of the story use words like “minors” and “juveniles” to describe the teens — words generally not in your everyday vocabulary unless you’re in law enforcement. Use of such terms (instead of “crowds,” “youths,” or even “children”) needlessly applies an implicit criminality to hundreds of teens. Journalists should keep a close eye on the language they use to describe such incidents to avoid unthinkingly parroting “cop-speak.”
Editors should also assign reporters to uncover why these gatherings occur. Are there enough places in a given city for teens to socialize? Are they free? Are they welcoming? Or have they been closed due to understaffing, divestment, or general contempt for young people?
An op-ed from Philly’s Broad Street Review, below, provides a constructive additional angle to this seasonal story. (I particularly love its “eyebrow” heading.)
September 1, 2023
September 28, 2023
I tip my hat to writer Joshua P. Hill for the viral tweet that alerted me to this story.
As the old journalism adage goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Fact-checking and corroborating a source’s story are crucial steps in the reporting process.
Yet, all too often, rehashes of public statements are published as complete news stories. The most generous justification for this habit is that what is considered “newsworthy” in these cases is not whether a statement is true, but that the statement was made, or that it was made by an important entity. In that case, the public deserves to know what that entity has said as soon as possible.
The obvious problem here is that if journalists make the argument that anything said by a certain entity is inherently newsworthy, then they are absolved of the need to actually determine whether their claims are true before amplifying them. A statement might not be true, but the fact that the Very Important Person said it is true, so we’re in the clear, so to speak.
That’s how we get headlines like the one from CBS below. Target recently announced that they will close nine of their over 1,900 U.S. stores. Their public statement included the words, “we cannot continue operating these stores because theft and organized retail crime….” Instead of using quotation marks or attribution to couch this statement, this headline uses “because,” which makes Target’s claim read like objective fact.
But it’s not objective fact. It’s a statement made by a large corporation that could be true or false.
Why does the veracity of Target’s claim matter? For the past few years, headlines about rising retail theft have proliferated — including regurgitated corporate statements like these. This coverage has increased public perception that this is a rising threat. This has led lawmakers from California to Pennsylvania to bolster law enforcement and consider legislation that would worsen punishments for perpetrators. In other words, similar claims have impacted public life by shifting resources and laws. We should know whether they’re true — and, as is journalistic best practice, we should not take one source’s word for it.
What other information should be considered alongside Target’s claim? For starters, the latest National Retail Security Survey “found the effect of theft on retailers’ bottom lines is about the same as it has been for years,” CNBC reports. Other research on the topic shows claims of a retail theft crisis are murky at best. CNBC also reports that “Target’s business has struggled for more than a year with company-specific challenges, including a glut of unsold inventory, backlash to its Pride merchandise collection and a pullback in consumer spending.”
It may be impossible to determine the objective truth here — maybe Target has a decision-making paper trail to uncover, or maybe it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean its corporate statements should be taken at face value and amplified.
The headline from the Washington Post below does a good job of balancing this. The fact is that stores are closing. The reason for doing so is unverified, so it reads that Target “blames” it on theft, leaving the truth up for debate.
November 2, 2023
As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, this rings true for journalists who haven’t learned the lessons of prior coverage and its criticisms.
Back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, two wire service photos of the resulting crisis sparked a conversation on language and framing. The Los Angeles Times recounted the story in 2017:
“One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was ‘looting.’ A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as ‘finding.’”
The difference in these terms is the level of sympathy elicited for the subject. “Looting“ implies criminality while “finding” in this context implies innocently gathering goods for survival. Based on U.S. history, I think I can reasonably suggest systemic racism played a role in the labels given to each photo.
I use this example pretty frequently in my workshops on news and language. You may understand, then, why the headline from Politico below caused me dismay.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is well documented. More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past few weeks and innocent civilians are in dire need of aid. Using the word “loot,” traditionally defined as pillaging for the spoils of war, is an incredibly cynical and unsympathetic way to frame people stealing for survival.
I much prefer the simple rephrase used by CNN in the headline below. “Take” is a pretty neutral verb in this situation; it doesn’t imply criminality but does suggest the goods weren’t willingly given. The use of “basics” underlines the life-sustaining nature of the items people were searching for.
The final example below, from the BBC, I think does the best job of illustrating how dire the situation truly is. It uses the phrase “break into” to imply that the actions described may not have been lawful, but still manages to focus on the real story here: people are desperately searching for aid. This isn’t stealing for stealing’s sake — as we might think of with the word “looting.”
This headline doesn’t sensationalize the events it describes by centering crime. Its priorities are clear: audiences need to understand how bad things really are. It’s the difference between, “Look, these people committed a crime” and “Look, things are so bad these people had to commit a crime to survive.”