Mass shootings dominate reporting on gun violence. Here’s what we need to talk about instead

A memorial to the victims of the Tree of Life massacre outside the synagogue. (daveynin/Flickr)

By Brian Malte

For decades, the media has treated the gun violence issue like it was a sport, dividing America into two camps: fans who love guns and opponents who fear guns. This simplistic sorting fuels furious political debate, but also has deleterious consequences for an issue that deserves a thoughtful, data driven approach.

Many people learn about gun violence – and self-separate into pro and con teams – by consuming news reports. Media outlets lay much of the groundwork for our societal debate on gun violence merely by deciding which incidents to cover, and how they choose to frame these events. Mainstream media holds immense power when it comes to depicting both the perpetrators and victims of gun violence.

Hope and Heal Fund provided funds to Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG) to analyze media reports of gun violence, finding that coverage is primarily driven by public mass shootings and episodic community shootings. The absence over balancing coverage, however, creates a distorted narrative, making it seem as if public mass shootings are a major cause of gun deaths in the U.S.

While unbelievably tragic and heartbreaking, public mass shootings make up about 1 percent of the nearly 40,000 gun deaths per year.

With regard to community gun violence, most notable is the absence of meaningful narration and inclusion by the community experiencing such violence and their local solutions.

Instead, tragic incidents are almost always filtered through a criminal justice lens, with law enforcement officials being the main spokespersons.

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The relentless focus on public mass shootings has consequences. Continual depictions overemphasizes the prevalence of mass shootings, and it sustains the (erroneous) assumption that gun violence is inevitably the inheritance of black and brown communities.

And missing almost entirely from the cannon of news coverage are what should be plentiful references to preventable firearm suicides and domestic violence where the firearm is the most common and lethal means of death.

This must change. If it doesn’t, we’ll stay stuck in a death-inducing spiral of polarization and politics; we’ll contort our policymaking to accommodate an occurrence that is rare, and we’ll continue to see community violence ignored on both the policy and public funding front and this would be particularly tragic.

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Tremendous strides are being made in urban communities by leaders implementing successful violence-reduction strategies. Lastly, we won’t know about promising strategies to reduce the lethal means (firearms) in suicide attempts and domestic violence situations.

How do we change these media narratives? By amplifying the voice of victims and survivors. The BMSG analysis showed that victims and survivors are rarely interviewed, with the narratives mostly left to law enforcement and politicians.

What will make a difference is less reporting on the shocking flash of carnage and tragedy, and more on the survivors who are working on solutions that will ensure that no other family will suffer the pain and loss of losing a loved one.

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While providing opportunities for victims and survivors to tell their stories, it’s also critical to simultaneously address their needs while engaging in action for change. Historically, victims and survivors of gun violence who have spoken out have not had the consistent deep support, resources or services they’ve needed to deal with their immense pain and loss. Too often they are trotted out while the cameras are rolling, then left to cope on their own.

To be clear, I don’t mean just telling the stories of survival and heroism in the face of tragic mass shootings. I mean capturing the toll taken by day-to-day gun violence in certain zip codes in our impacted neighborhoods and the tragic consequences of domestic violence and familicide.

The most authentic messengers are those who have been directly impacted by gun violence–those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

Victims and survivors are already making positive changes in their local communities and through advocacy at the state and federal levels.

It is our collective duty to help provide tools and resources to help them tell their powerful stories of healing through action and help them find healing through community support and mutually beneficial connections.

We can do this by working with local communities to establish survivor networks and trauma centers that not only serve as sources of healing and support, but networks that also function an authentic, authoritative voices on the subject of gun violence.

This selflessness and nobility of soul is the reason why I have pushed forward fighting for gun violence prevention over the last 25 years.

These wonderful human beings are my heroes and my true inspiration. These victims and survivors who get up every morning to make a difference do so not for money or fame, but to say enough gun violence.

There is a true, authentic story to be told. We just need to be honest, selective and supportive of our narrators and the stories we are choosing to tell.

Brian Malte is the executive director of the Hope and Heal Fund, a California-based philanthropy dedicated to fighting gun violence.

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