The Media Today

Covering carnage

January 27, 2023

It’s been a horrible week of gun violence in America, which is to say that it’s been much like every other week. Two mass shootings in California—one in Monterey Park, outside of Los Angeles; the other in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco—resulted in the deaths of nineteen people (including one of the gunmen) and kicked off 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. Change the channel, turn the page.

This year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, more than thirteen hundred Americans have died by gun violence as of this morning, a rate of more than fifty people every day. If the numbers continue at the pace of the past couple of years—and there’s no reason to believe they won’t—more than twenty thousand of us will die a violent gun death in 2023, according to the Archive. And even more people will die by suicide with a gun.

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All of which makes our repetitive media response so infuriatingly lacking. This week was not an aberration; the shooters are not people on the fringe; this is not something that just doesn’t happen here. Gun carnage has become a foundational part of life in America. So why does some of the press continue to cover it as if it’s not?

Nearly two years ago, CJR launched a project to try to break this cycle. “It is time to radically reconsider how guns and gun deaths are covered by the press in America,” I wrote then, as we convened a summit of reporters and health experts to talk about how the press should change its approach. We also placed news boxes around New York City filled with broadsheets, titled The Inevitable News, featuring fourteen pages of identical, fill-in-the-blanks news stories about mass shootings since 2018, with only the location and the names of the victims changed in each case. The week that we launched that effort, eighteen people died in two mass shootings: ten at a grocery store in Boulder; eight, six of them Asian women, at massage spas in the Atlanta area.

The conversation that we convened resulted in a list of ways in which reporters could change how they report on gun violence. The recommendations included covering gun violence like the health crisis it is, 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:

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Mass shootings represent a small percentage of gun deaths in the US but constitute a majority of the coverage. We acknowledge that dramatic, mass shooting events warrant attention. But they need to be covered as high-profile manifestations of a much larger, systemic problem, and made into an opportunity to educate the public on the thousands of people who are dying outside of the media spotlight.

We then did something unusual, for a news organization like CJR: we asked other newsrooms to sign on to a commitment to change their coverage, responding to the shortcomings we identified in the discussion. Many thousands of people read our stories and watched the conversation on livestream. And yet almost no one signed up to change their approach. There are many explanations for that—from the pressing distraction of the pandemic at the time to the fact that journalists are constitutionally resistant to joining causes. Understandable reasons, all.

But that resistance nevertheless points to the bigger problem, which is the unwillingness to shift the status quo when it comes to gun coverage. Journalism in America is missing the story, which isn’t only about mass shootings or a six-year-old wounding his teacher, but relentless bloodshed that disproportionately touches communities of color.

Every decent-size newsroom in the country should have a gun beat. 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.

On the day you read this, fifty Americans will die from gun violence. That’s a story that deserves telling.

In April 2021, around the time of our gun-coverage summit, I interviewed Manuel and Patricia Oliver—whose son Joaquin was murdered in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—for CJR’s podcast The Kicker. The Olivers have a lot to say about gun violence and the rote way in which the media covers it, and their nonprofit, Change the Ref, has been among the most effective at drawing attention to the ongoing problem. Last year, Manuel Oliver made headlines when he interrupted President Biden during a speech at the White House. Oliver’s plea? “You have to do more.” You can listen to my interview with the Olivers here, and review CJR’s gun coverage commitment here.

Other notable stories:

  • The New Yorker’s Clare Malone looked behind the scenes at the Washington Post, amid layoffs and internal fears that the paper is “​​in need of better strategic planning.” Even unpopular recent moves like closing the paper’s Sunday magazine “were seen as defensible business decisions by some,” Malone writes, but many staffers felt that the recent layoffs, while less far-reaching than expected, were “chaotically implemented and capricious.” One former Post reporter told Malone that he was left wondering if the paper’s “real strategy wasn’t just to wait and see if Trump came back.”
  • Yesterday, Jonah Peretti, the CEO of BuzzFeed, told staffers that the company will lean into using artificial intelligence to “enhance its quizzes and personalize some content for its audiences,” the Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Bruell reports. Some employees expressed concern that the move could lead to staff reductions, but Peretti insisted that BuzzFeed would use AI to assist staffers, not replace them, while a spokesperson told Bruell that BuzzFeed News will continue to focus on “human-generated journalism.”
  • Three audio producers who were commissioned to work on a Guardian podcast examining the paper’s founder and his ties to slavery have accused the paper of “institutional racism, editorial whiteness, and ignorance,” as well as an attempt to “whitewash history,” Deadline’s Jake Kanter reports. The Guardian said that it was “concerned” by the producers’ experience but also described their account as “partial.”
  • In France, Sandrine Treiner stepped down as director of France Culture, a public radio station, after an article last year in Libération triggered an internal probe; staffers variously described the station’s management as “brutal,” “autocratic,” and “nasty,” while attesting to a “system of violence and submission,” and a report was said to be imminent. In an email to staff, Treiner acknowledged “errors” and apologized for them.
  • And the AP’s Stylebook, a linguistic bible for many newsrooms, put out a tweet urging the avoidance of “general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels,” such as “the poor,” “the mentally ill,” and, erm, “the French.” The Stylebook subsequently acknowledged that its inclusion of “the French” was “inappropriate” and had caused “unintended offense.” It also caused amusement, and ample references to “people experiencing Frenchness.”

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Correction: This column has been amended to reflect that a six-year-old shot and wounded his teacher in Virginia. He did not kill her.

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.