How to cover the vast, scattered population of gun violence survivors

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This story is published in partnership with The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the US.

FOR NEARLY TWO YEARS, I’ve reported almost exclusively on America’s gunshot survivors. When most people think of gun violence, they think of mass shootings or annual death tolls. But that overlooks the sprawling shadow population of people struggling to adjust to the repercussions of bullets that did not kill. Tens of thousands survive gunshot wounds every year. As one advocate put it, “there’s this whole middle place that a lot of people are left in.” Those are the stories I try to tell.

Despite their prevalence, there’s little research on the long-term effects of gunshot injuries on people’s bodies, psyches, and relationships. To fill that gap, I’ve interviewed or corresponded with more than 100 survivors from around the country whose lives have been changed by violence, whether psychologically, socially, or economically. I highlighted these stories in profiles, audio collaborations, and mini-narratives on Twitter. Recently, my reporting fed an eight-episode podcast about people trying to figure out their lives after being shot.

ICYMI: The stories we should be writing after the Parkland shooting

Many shooting victims I’ve interviewed have dealt with post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, and jumpiness around loud noises. For these reasons, I’m always trying to figure out ways to limit further harm during the reporting process. I’ve also learned some things about how reporters can take care of themselves while covering trauma.

 

1. Know the data and its limits

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Familiarize yourself with the data on gun violence—and be aware of where it falls short. An estimated 80,000 people survive nonfatal gun injuries in the US each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than double the number of yearly firearm fatalities. However, the CDC’s data on nonfatal injuries isn’t as thorough as death records, relying instead on data from a limited number of hospitals. That gives those estimates a high degree of uncertainty, but law enforcement statistics have their own downsides. Roughly a third of major cities don’t track nonfatal shootings, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Keeping in mind those caveats, here are my go-to resources for shooting and injury data:

  • For national stats, the CDC’s nonfatal injury reports contain nonfatal firearm injury estimates going back to 2001.
  • See what data your local police department keeps. If you’re lucky to be reporting on or about a city that tracks nonfatal shootings, like Louisville or Oakland, these statistics add helpful context to an individual’s story.
  • Follow local criminologists or crime analysts. One of my favorites is Jeff Asher, a reporter and crime analyst based in New Orleans who keeps detailed tallies on nonfatal shootings in different cities. He also debunks common crime stat misconceptions for FiveThirtyEight — like this essential explainer on why nonfatal shootings are a better barometer for violence than homicides.

Stories of American gun violence often reflect disparity. Poor urban neighborhoods disproportionately experience shootings, a phenomenon dubbed “murder inequality” that applies to nonfatal gun violence as well. Young black men are especially vulnerable: Black males between the ages of 15 and 24 are killed at a rate 20 times greater than their white counterparts, per CDC figures. When looking for subjects, prioritize people who represent the communities hit hardest.

 

2. Get creative with your sourcing

Gunshot victims interviewed in the immediate aftermath of a shooting might offer an opportunity for a follow-up piece—see if the reporter is willing to put you in touch. Victims often live with the repercussions of their injuries for years, even decades, after the incident, and aging survivors have a lot to teach us about what the young may face ahead.

To identify more cases and narratives within a specific region or time range, there’s Gun Violence Archive, which compiles an online archive of gun incidents primarily from media reports going back to 2013. You can narrow your search using filters like date, city, state, and whether a shooting involved multiple victims or took place at a certain type of location, such as a school or workplace.  

News articles on shootings don’t always mention survivors by name for privacy reasons, and often heavily skew toward police perspectives, so you’ll likely need alternative methods for finding them. Look for GoFundMe pages, which often include a survivor’s name, a few details about the incident, and a contact person. Once I find a person’s name, I usually search for them on Facebook and see if they respond to a direct message. If I can find a family member or friend, I’ll ask them to reach out to a survivor on my behalf.

If you don’t already belong to a community that experiences high rates of gun violence, it’s helpful to identify the gatekeepers in communities that do, and who are likely to know survivors: activists, prevention workers, violence interrupters, and the heads of anti-violence nonprofits. Ask if they’re willing to see if the survivor wants to talk and connect you.

 

The author at a Public Safety Roundtable hosted by the Newark Community Street Team in 2017. Photo via NCST Newark Community Street Team/Facebook.

 

3. Be sensitive to your sources

Experiencing violence can shatter a person’s sense of safety or control. As with many other kinds of subjects, the people you speak to may also not be media-savvy, meaning they’re doubly vulnerable. So if you’re reporting on shooting survivors, I don’t think it’s possible to over-communicate with your subjects about what they’re getting into by talking to a journalist.

Before I start interviewing gunshots survivors, I often walk them through what will happen during the reporting process, and how their story might be used. I explain what The Trace does, why I want to write about them, and how much of their time I will likely need. I share examples of my past work and give them a chance to ask me questions. If they seem to be getting overwhelmed, I suggest taking a break. I keep them informed about when the story will run, and follow up a few days afterward to see how they’re doing.

Common symptoms of PTSD include hypervigilance, avoidance of trauma-related memories, emotional numbness, and poor concentration—any of which could seep into an interview. A survivor might have trouble recalling the exact timing or order of events. If that happens, I might ask the person to describe the emotions or sensations they experienced—smells, sounds, colors—and then rely on police reports or other sources for the concrete details.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has compiled a comprehensive handbook of expertise for journalists, editors, and managers covering any type of trauma. Some of my favorite tips:

  • Say you’re sorry for what happened to the person you’re interviewing.
  • Give them a heads up before asking a tough question.
  • Be prepared for a wide range of emotional responses––despair, anger, bitterness, confusion, numbness—and approach any response with kindness and understanding.

The anniversary of a person’s shooting can be an especially tough time, so be extra sensitive about reaching out or setting up an interview around then. If they aren’t up for talking, give them space but also check in later.

 

4. Find out where gunshot survivors are falling through the gaps

Gun violence reporting is not all about statistics and physical injury. It’s equally important to learn about the day-to-day realities gunshot survivors face. A single bullet can cause chronic pain, life-threatening infections, and isolating fear. It can also transform someone’s personal relationships, hamper their ability to get around their home or city, and place a huge financial burden on them or their family.

People who work with gunshot survivors can offer broader perspectives into some of these issues. Trauma and pain doctors, psychiatrists, physical therapists, and social workers have all added important expertise to my stories. I interviewed victim service providers, who explained how once-simple tasks can become insurmountable under the weight of PTSD. After reporting on a hospital program in Ohio last year, I learned about the state victim compensation systems, which led me to investigate how gunshot survivors struggle to access it.

Getting shot is often a brutal and traumatic experience, but that doesn’t mean stories about gunshot survivors have to be depressing. People find creative ways to cope with their injuries—whether it’s starting a Facebook group for other survivors or teaching other paraplegic people how to drive. When survivors find solutions to problems on their own, it can reveal failures or shortcomings by the institutions that should be responsible for their care, raising opportunities for accountability reporting.

 

5. Watch for vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma is the cumulative negative effect of working with survivors of violence, disaster, or trauma. (Terms like “secondary trauma,” “compassion fatigue,” and “burnout” are sometimes used interchangeably, but experts define them differently.) Social workers, first responders, and therapists can develop distress over repeated exposure to tragedy and trauma. That goes for journalists, too.

For me, learning about vicarious trauma has been a helpful guard against it. I read about trauma so I can recognize warning signs, both in myself and other colleagues. Here’s one helpful guide to vicarious trauma for journalists and editors. Three other things I do:

  • Establish clear boundaries between myself and sources, and between home and work. For example, I avoid scheduling interviews at night before bed. I also limit my news and social media exposure when I’m not working.
  • Nurture my relationships with friends, family, and mentors. Research suggests social connection can help people be more resilient to trauma.
  • Talk with other reporters who cover difficult topics. Reporters don’t traditionally discuss second-hand trauma, but encouraging open conversations can help journalists make this work more sustainable, both for them and their sources. Facebook groups like Journalists Covering Trauma offer forums for these conversations.

I try to approach every interview with genuine empathy, and that requires time and energy. I space out interviews to give my brain and heart a chance to recharge. In interviewing shooting survivors, I’ve witnessed people in profound isolation and sorrow, but I’ve also been amazed by the human capacity to recover.

ICYMI: Five ideas for more respectful media coverage after mass shootings

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Elizabeth Van Brocklin is a staff reporter at The Trace. She mainly covers urban violence, including the experiences and needs of gunshot survivors and institutions accountable to them.