Media inconsistent in telling the stories of gun violence victims

Greg Jackson
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
A sign on display in windows of a business to show support for Oxford High School on Dec. 7, 2021, in Oxford, Michigan. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images/TNS)

In the wake of a global conversation on race, equity and inclusion, the media’s portrayal of gun violence victims remains inconsistent and perpetuates stereotypes.

When incidents of gun violence occur in predominantly white, suburban communities, the story centers on the lives lost and impacted. Pictures show victims with friends and family. As these images float across your screen, you may hear how the community “was rocked” by the incident, how a “beloved coach and father of two” was gunned down. The victim is given humanity.

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Compare this to an urban community; the story and narration may be presented differently. On screen: crime scene tape, flashing lights, neighbors consoling each other. We see these visuals while hearing, “John Doe, 30, was the latest victim in a string of recent shootings in this inner-city neighborhood.” No back story or humanization, instead John Doe’s death was unfortunate, but not surprising.

In majority-minority communities, Black and brown gun violence victims are seen as statistics. Their deaths or injuries are reported without emotion. In more affluent suburban communities, victims are described with care and dignity. Stories highlight their achievements and the impact they had on those who loved them.

Recently, in Baltimore 16 people were shot over one weekend. Few, if any, local television media outlets mentioned a single victim by name. Instead, images of red and blue lights dancing off yellow crime police tape dotted the screen. Compare this to the coverage of the recent mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan. Extensive coverage has been given to telling the stories of the students killed, the vigils held and how the community is coping.

While coverage of this violence can discriminate, gun violence does not. It takes lives or leaves long-lasting physical and emotional scars for those impacted. We are at a critical time within the gun violence prevention movement. For the first time, the federal government plans to invest $5 billion to treat gun violence like a public health crisis, providing resources for a holistic approach to gun violence prevention, moving away from solutions rooted in crime prevention. More and more, communities are adopting policies that put people at the center of the solution. Yet, our work is more difficult when the images and words used to describe victims and the communities where they live and work advance the status quo and discount their humanity.

This is a public health crisis, and our response in all parts of our culture must reflect this importance. In the Black community, more than 85% of homicide victims are shot and killed with guns. Nationally, more than 38,000 people are killed by guns each year, and nearly another 85,000 are injured.

COVID-19 has taken 800,000 American lives, and at the beginning of this pandemic, when the death toll was much lower, each death was discussed with care, reported and chronicled with a richness that brought strangers to life and gave voice to those often forgotten in nursing homes. The national mood was somber, collaborative and change-driven, largely colored by national and local reporting.

This is how we should discuss gun violence, its victims and their stories. Focusing on the people impacted by the bullet and those impacted by the residual echo of the shots fired that live on well beyond those fateful seconds. By doing so, we can curb gun violence with creative policies and storytelling that doesn’t criminalize victims. We will no longer be working to solve a problem for them, we will be working to solve a problem for us.

We must be committed to ending gun violence in all forms with sustained advocacy and community investments that will make a lasting impact. This work naturally extends to lawmakers and policy experts to reshape gun violence prevention policies, as well as storytellers and journalists, who must recast how we contextualize and chronicle the lives of those impacted by gun violence. Together, we will author a narrative of innovative policymaking and storytelling that works to reduce gun violence and boldly break the mold of upholding the status quo.

— Greg Jackson is executive director of the Community Justice Action Fund.