Why a Temple Trauma Surgeon Is Pushing Journalists to Change How They Cover Gun Violence
Director of research for the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, Jessica Beard challenges media to reframe the crisis as one of public health.
At any given moment, Jessica Beard knows she could get “the call.”
As a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital — one of the busiest trauma centers for gunshot wounds in Pennsylvania — she cares daily for people injured by firearms. It was during these sadly routine interventions that she began to grasp how the media influences the way her patients — and the community — think and talk about gun violence.
“Because I witness the excruciating heartbreak of this epidemic on a daily basis, I am passionate about firearm-violence prevention,” Beard says. “I believe that if the news media helped the public to understand the root causes and solutions for firearm violence and emphasized the humanity of firearm-injured people and their loved ones, this could result in more support for effective solutions for firearm-violence prevention.”
Since 2021, Beard has served as the director of research for the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, dedicated to widening the media lens on gun violence in the city. The organization, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim MacMillan, focuses on framing gun violence as a public-health crisis — an epidemic, rather than a crime surge — and centering the voices of victims and impacted communities.
PCGVR is advocating for journalists to move beyond the narrow scope of episodic gun-violence reporting that’s focused on single shooting events to tell deeper stories about firearm violence in Philadelphia. What would that look like? How about stories that explore root causes and multi-level solutions? Stories that support evidence-based public-health responses. Stories that hold policy makers accountable for gun-violence prevention. The team hopes to reframe the crisis as a preventable problem that can be tackled with the tools of public health and community engagement, while also educating the public about causes and what policies they can support to prevent such violence.
For Beard, there’s one main challenge: the harmful media narratives around gun violence. She was lead author of a January 2023 study published in Social Science and Medicine: Qualitative Research in Health showing that “media reports on interpersonal firearm violence largely present it as a crime issue focused on individual shooting events.” That approach, the study says, “can undermine support for public-health solutions to firearm violence.” Beard’s research shows that the majority of TV news clips on gun violence in Philly are episodic crime reports that present police as the sole or dominant source of information and are often accompanied by images of shell casings, crime scenes and police cars. These reports can make police responses to gun violence seem more effective than they are and even result in calls for more policing from the communities most likely to be harmed by tough-on-crime policies.
The first-of-its-kind report, which involved interviews with 26 gun-violence patients at Temple University Hospital, also highlighted how the victims felt dehumanized by the media’s coverage. “These types of stories obscure the root causes of firearm violence and make it seem inevitable,” she says. “They can also reinforce racist stereotypes about firearm-injured people and the places where firearm injury occurs.”
Beard further notes that crime-based coverage actually perpetuates the cycle of violence, increasing retaliation toward victims, furthering misinformation, and stoking community fear. Her conviction comes from knowing we can do better.
A September 2022 PCGVR workshop brought together 70 community stakeholders — including those directly impacted by gun violence, local journalists and scholars — to collaboratively design solutions for better gun-violence reporting in Philadelphia. The day-long event charged print and broadcast journalists with rethinking the crime beats of their newsrooms. After hearing feedback from community members in attendance, several journalists said they better understood the need to avoid further insensitivity and harm. At the most basic level, Beard says, journalists reporting on a shooting should interview people who have been shot and their loved ones. Ideally, follow-up stories beyond the initial event should explore grief, resilience and survivorship.
Beard says PCGVR is now working to bring to life the prototypes imagined by the workshop participants, like creating a hub to foster trust between community members and journalists and providing training in trauma-informed journalistic practices.
“Recently, WHYY made the bold and unprecedented choice to employ two gun-violence prevention reporters, and Billy Penn keeps gun-violence prevention on their main menu,” Beard says. “The Trace is an outstanding source for solutions reporting and now has three journalists based in Philadelphia. Although Philadelphia is the birthplace of Eyewitness News and Action News” — two of the worst coverage offenders, in her view — “there are journalists doing phenomenal work on gun violence all over Philadelphia.”
And it seems the story isn’t over yet.
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Published as “The News Watcher” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.