Crime, Policing, & Gun Violence: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated October 2022
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on crime, policing, and gun violence published in our weekly newsletter, Freeze Frame. 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.
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.
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.
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.