When reporters get it wrong: Gun Crisis News gives citizens a say

Makeshift memorials like these are an all-too-common sight on city streets.

It’s no secret that reporters make mistakes. They range from misspellings and misinformation that can be addressed, though never completely remedied, by retractions and apologies, to the trickier issue of oversight – missing important events, angles and voices that get lost in the daily shuffle of breaking news, media releases and press conferences.

That’s why the folks over at Gun Crisis News held a roundtable discussion this afternoon providing public relations tips to help activist citizens gain media coverage of issues important to them and encouraging open lines of communication between reporters and communities.

Jim MacMillan of Gun Crisis opened with a PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of the nonprofit, volunteer-run journalism project documenting gun violence in Philadelphia and exploring ways to help stem its tide. He came to a map of shooting deaths in Philadelphia, with each red dot representing a life lost. He clicked to the next slide. “Here’s five years.” More dots crowded the screen. Click. “Ten years.” Click. “23 years.” The map was virtually obscured, the vast swaths of red blooming across the page like blood.
“For comparison, more people have been shot in Philadelphia since the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado than the number of people that were shot in Aurora,” MacMillan said. “More people have been shot in Philadelphia since September 11 than the number of people who died on September 11. More people have been shot in Philadelphia since the start of the war in Iraq than the number of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq.”

The floor was then turned over to residents who are daily embroiled in this reality, who have lived through every red dot on that map – and experienced many of them personally.

Verna Tyler, a community activist in Tioga and chief staffer to Councilman Bill Green, said that her main qualm is the difficulty of getting media to pay attention to good news. “We want to start selling ourselves and our neighborhood,” she said, adding that she didn’t just mean one-off rallies and gatherings. “I’m talking about positive stuff that is going on on a daily basis in the community,” she said. “They can give them a little, small section. It can be before the obituaries, I don’t care where, but a section focusing on good news.”

Co-founder and Executive Director of X-Offenders for Community Empowerment Wayne Jacobs has faced similar problems regarding media presence at his group’s events. “We’ve been doing an illegal gun rally for 13 years,” he said. “Every year, we send out a press release. Guess what? We may get one reporter. I don’t understand that because we are the ones you talk about,” he said, addressing the media. “But when we take the lead on this, we don’t get a response.”

He also feels that reporters should more heavily emphasize the illegally-transferred guns often used in violent crimes rather than focusing exclusively on victims or offenders. “They say, ‘guns, guns, guns,’ but never ‘illegal gun transfer,’” he said.

Jacobs later elaborated on his belief that other community issues can’t begin to be addressed until the tide of gun violence is staunched. “When you come home and find your house flooded, what’s the first thing you do?” he said. “You don’t call the government. You turn off the tap that brings in water from the street. Then you do your first assessment and call. Gun violence is like a flood running through a house. If we begin to stop the flood, people can feel that they can start to concentrate on other things, but right now, we’re being flooded with these guns.”

Director of the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center Lenora Jackson-Evans echoed the feeling of helplessness in the face of such a massive and deeply-rooted problem. She said violence occurs with such frequency in certain areas that it often has a numbing effect on the public. Reporters swoop in each time a crime occurs and cherry-pick a collection of quotes to fill their notebooks. “Then we don’t see them again until the next group,” she said.

But the same frequency of violence that has anesthetized much of the reading – and reporting – public has overwhelmed Evans’ neighborhood, which experiences each loss as a living, breathing whole, resulting in a deep pain she said is difficult for others to understand. “The whole community is crying out,” she said. “My heart is so heavy.”

Evans said that after the 2010 shooting death of her son – preceded by the death of her nephew the year before and that of her brother in 2007, who took his own life while in the throes of drug addiction – the city offered to send her to grieving counseling.

But Evans wasn’t the only one grieving.  “In the meantime, families and and children were hurting. It’s not just about my son, I was thinking about the perpetrator’s family,” she said, searching for the words to express the depth of her pain. “When people get killed in a close knit neighborhood, everyone is affected,” she said. “I’m tired of marches. I’m tired of vigils. This is a community where everyone is hurting when one child is killed.”

Evans’ organization, like many, is understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed. She doesn’t know how to begin to create a website or write and circulate a traditional press release. Servicing over 40,000 people with only two staffers, Evans can barely deal with the day-to-day stream of LIHEAP applications, social services requests, pleas for information about job openings and young adults who just want someone to listen. And the pain. “There’s so much hurt,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s why these young men react and do what they do.”

Evans concluded that she would like to develop a relationship with an editor to talk about these types of issues on a one-on-one, ongoing basis, as well as to see more engagement between community groups, the media, and young people. “I’m tired of sitting at a table with adults,” she said. “We need to speak to young people, because what works for us doesn’t work for them.”

The meeting didn’t end with any easy solutions – nor should it have. But mailing lists and media training tip sheets were distributed, business cards and brochures were exchanged. The conversation began. “I had a chance to express myself,” Jacobs said afterward. “I’m usually not invited to these things.”


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