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How media should cover gun violence


Here in this newsroom, we've been having a lot of conversations about our role and responsibility as journalists when covering horrific tragedies like the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo and Tulsa. We report the facts. But how we tell these stories and what details we choose to focus on - that's something we wanted to spend some time talking about today. So we've called Dannagal Young. She's a professor of communications and political science at the University of Delaware, and she studies the impact that news stories have on the public. Dannagal, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DANNAGAL YOUNG: Thanks, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Your research looks in part at what you call the media's bias in favor of covering specific events and individual people instead of looking more broadly at what leads to tragedies like mass shootings. You call it episodically framed stories versus thematically framed stories. Explain the difference between those two.

YOUNG: There was work that came out in the early '90s by Shanto Iyengar looking at whether or not the way that news stories are told could affect the kind of attributions of responsibility that viewers or readers might make. So if you tell a news story about individual people, individual problems, is it possible that you're actually going to encourage those readers and listeners to attribute responsibility and look for solutions at the level of the individual in the story?

PFEIFFER: Let's take a real-life example. If you look at Uvalde...

YOUNG: Yeah, yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...Do you feel like that was covered more episodically or more thematically?

YOUNG: I think it depends on what outlets we're talking about. I have seen a whole lot of attention paid to more thematically framed coverage that looks at the history of gun control in the United States, rates of gun violence broken down by state, etc. Those thematically framed stories contextualize what happened in Texas within a broader framework, a political framework, a cultural framework. That's thematic. However, as the story sort of began to unfold and we did learn about failures at the level of the Uvalde police and the school police in particular, some of those stories really began to focus on the individual police as opposed to thinking more broadly about gun violence as an epidemic in the United States.

PFEIFFER: Although I see this as a news person, but the law enforcement failure at Uvalde appears to have been so catastrophic that, of course, that had to be covered. That alone was a news story. So I feel that the media did both. It looked at the catastrophe of that individual case and also covered the broader issues that result in mass shootings in this country.

YOUNG: And I would agree for those stories that tended to do both, that highlighted the failure of the police and continued to broaden the lens and highlight the fact that, even if the police had responded the way that they were supposed to respond, it is likely that many of the children who died that day would have died that day. I think that's really important for us to understand - that you can do both. You can cover the specific elements, broaden the lens, and help us think contextually about what this crisis is about. The question that I wish that all journalists would always ask themselves is, what is going to help Americans understand not just this day but this broader issue?

PFEIFFER: The news covers specific events, and I think we're pretty good about also covering big themes like the history of guns in the U.S. and the influence of the NRA. But I feel like there's a different problem, which is we understand what the systemic problems are, and they just don't get addressed. So is there some middle ground that the media is helpless to do anything about?

YOUNG: NPR may feel that you are doing both, but I don't know that all media outlets are doing both, especially when we're talking about the televisual media. It is much more challenging to do the broader kind of journalism that we're talking about because there is a bias in favor of visual elements, and legislation and history don't have a lot of visual elements. And I think that you're right. There is this sort of political intransigence, a lack of willingness, especially on the part of Republicans, to allow anything to move forward on this front. And - but I think that that also needs to be addressed. That's part of the story.

PFEIFFER: That's Dannagal Young. She's a professor of communications and political science at the University of Delaware. Thank you.

YOUNG: Thanks, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.