Can reporters prevent gun violence? This Philadelphia journalist wants to find out

By: - October 2, 2019 7:07 am

“Fifteen Philadelphia journalists were invited to spend Saturday, September 7 with 30 residents from the core communities impacted by gun violence in the city. Participants will reflect on their experiences during the upcoming summit.” Courtesy The Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting

Through his camera, Jim MacMillan has seen what violence looks like in two very different places.

He spent nearly two decades as a newspaper photojournalist in Philadelphia, a city where hundreds of people are killed with guns every year.

And in the early 2000s, he documented combat missions in Iraq, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize with an Associated Press team.

Now, he’s turning his lens on reporters themselves — and asking what their work can do to prevent shootings in the first place.

“I think it’s worth examining the question of whether … changing the practice can save lives,” MacMillan said by phone Tuesday. “That’s no small matter.”

MacMillan has temporarily relocated to the University of Missouri to launch The Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting, which is supported by a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship. One of the ultimate goals is to create a set of best practices for journalists.

In September, the initiative hosted a day-long discussion between a group of journalists from Philadelphia and community members who live with the trauma of gun violence.

Next month, on Nov. 8, the Better Gun Reporting Violence Summit at WHYY-FM in Philadelphia will bring together “experts in public health, gun policy, and violence reduction; community members who have experienced gun violence; and journalists from around the country” to “achieve the same goal: interrupt the cycle of community violence, reduce shootings and save lives.”

The Capital-Star spoke to MacMillan for our #PaForward series, which is examining evidence-based responses to gun violence in the commonwealth. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: So, I want to talk about your fellowship. But first, I want to ask you a question you probably get asked a lot. And that’s: What’s wrong with the way that journalists cover gun violence at the moment?

A: … Not to avoid the question, but the way that I prefer to approach it is whether there’s room for improvement. I’m really just suggesting that it’s worth exploring the possibility that changing the practice could reduce shootings and save lives.

That doesn’t necessarily equate to somebody doing something wrong.

Q: Can you talk about the goals [of your fellowship]? I read that a best practices guidebook is something that you want to develop.

A: The short term goals are to stage these couple of events in Philadelphia. I’m ordinarily based in Philadelphia; it makes sense to do my fieldwork there.

We had an event you may be aware of in September, bringing journalists together with members of the community impacted by gun violence. And then in November, we have the summit, which is more of a journalism conference intended to inform best practices for journalists.

The longer term goal of the fellowship is to develop this set of best practices.

Students here [at the University of Missouri are] working on an early draft of what the scene of gun violence reporting looks like. If we’re going to talk about how to change it, we should define it first.

The goals for the rest of this fellowship period are to pull that together, see what we can learn, set forth a preliminary set of best practices, and … begin strategically working on implementation — trying to get newsrooms to apply these, or to test these, or to consider these.

[In March 2012, MacMillan launched the Gun Crisis Reporting Project in Philadelphia, which reported on gun deaths in the city, vigils, and evidence-based solutions to gun violence.]

Q: The Gun Crisis Reporting Project was in part a solutions journalism project. You’re ahead of the curve on that … What appeals to you about that type of journalism?

 A: What appeals to me is the potential impact. I think journalists often are spending a lot of time examining the impact of other individuals and organizations and don’t traditionally always look at the impact of our reporting.

So I like it, because it’s impact oriented. I like it, because it can benefit communities.

But it’s only part of my formula. I think, if anything, I’m looking at a lot of innovative disciplines in journalism, including solutions journalism. I like it because it focuses on evidence-based responses to social problems.

Q: [In our Pa. Forward series,] we’ve also gotten pushback from people saying, even by saying that gun violence is a problem you’ve taken a stance, or by looking for solutions, you’ve taken a stance by saying there is a problem in the first place. I’m curious to know if you have ever experienced any criticisms like that, and how you’ve responded to them.

A: I get a broad spectrum of responses, from enthusiastic support from journalists, but also from researchers in public health and criminology, from different things. So I get a great deal of support.

At the other end of the spectrum, I get some pretty intense blowback from a small number of journalists, who say, this is not our job. They told me that I’m out of line, they told me that it’s demoralizing for them and critical. …

And then in the middle, I have a group that I feel is maybe my sweet spot. I meet a good number of journalists who are … intelligently critical of what I’m trying to do. But they show up, and they entertain the questions, and we make some progress together.

Q: The event that you had in September seemed like it really was a good conversation, and also maybe brought together groups of people who don’t organically come together, or who journalists might not have access to or connect with.

A: Contraction [in the size of newsrooms] means it’s hard to get out of the newsroom and into the street.

I think everybody knows that the industry has struggled with diversifying the workforce. The journalists reporting on gun violence often don’t live with it. … I shouldn’t generalize, there are exceptions to this. But many of the people reporting on gun violence don’t get into the field very much.

So I thought people should just look each other in the eye, make sure that they connect — see what they look like, hear their voices, trade names, and collect contact info, ask some questions, you know, make some suggestions.

It was just the first step. We weren’t looking for real, important development there. It was just the first step of engagement. So the next time that somebody is reporting on the topic, they might have another voice in the neighborhood. If someone in neighborhood has a concern with the reporting, they’ll have somebody to go to them.

The goal is really just to open up some relationships.

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.