Commentary: If we want to end gun violence, we need to change the narratives

A man was recently shot and killed in Dorchester after an hours-long stand-off with Boston police. The unidentified shooter reportedly suffered from mental illness and, for a host of reasons, he wasn’t receiving the care he needed. His ability to access a firearm made for a horrible combination in which he fired on police officers who ended the siege by ending his life. Now, a grieving and broken family is left behind, several police officers are suffering physical pain of their injuries and psychological pain of ending a life, and like many stories before his, this one is only partially told.

The headlines in the news reported some variation of “3 officers shot, suspect killed.” But this is not a complete narrative. By all early accounts, these officers acted with bravery and integrity as they spent hours bringing the man’s family and neighbors to safety and attempting to peacefully deescalate the situation. That they were injured in the line of duty is tragic and newsworthy. However, that a man who long suffered from mental illness and was able to obtain a gun was killed, that his family is left struggling to pick up the pieces, that his community is yet again traumatized by the collateral damage of gunfire, is also tragic and newsworthy.

Since 2018, there have been over 830 shootings in Boston, with 80% of them involving Black or African American men as victims. What counts as “news” is typically limited to the immediate aftermath of the gun firing: “man is killed,” “innocent bystander shot.” This coverage, as usual, doesn’t just omit details, it deletes the living experience of communities of color who are most impacted by the stereotypes of gun related homicides, strengthening the perception that Black and Brown Lives do not matter. It deletes from the popular consciousness those who support the families that are left to care for themselves with few resources. It deletes the work of community leaders who rush from one event to another quietly supporting families experiencing these traumatic events, while they relentlessly ask legislators for support to stop the gun violence. It deletes the work of doctors and nurses who have to tell yet another mother that her baby has died.

This “just the facts” approach to reporting homicides has historically worked for major media organizations. “If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s what gets the eyeballs and clicks, the metrics that matter most for news outlets. Gunshots fired; people died. Politicians share their thoughts and prayers. And the cycle repeats. This cold approach is dehumanizing for victims and survivors and distracting from the root causes of violence. It is also no longer effective for news organizations.

According to a recent study by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, while trust in local news is higher than trust in national news, it is beginning to erode. This is in part due to the polarization of the national political climate, and the politicization of previously non-partisan local news events, like crime. When the news of Tuesday’s shooting broke, the injured officers became a flashpoint for heated political rhetoric about policing. A “violence against police officers must stop” tweet went viral, was picked up by local reporting, and it stripped the story of both the true police heroics of protecting the community and the community-level trauma. It instead placed this event squarely within a national discourse lacking nuance. The objective of major news outlets needs to be understanding and care for the diversity of people that live in the city.

After the incident on a recent Tuesday, what if the headline read: “Lack of Access to Mental Health Resources Ends in Tragedy”, or “Tight-knit Community Devastated By Shooting”? And what if instead of seeking quotes from bystanders about the crime scene, the article included Ms. Carol Sowers, a long-time resident of the community saying, “We are a family, not just a tight-knit community.” What if what was newsworthy was not just the individual event, but the consequence of the event on people’s lives, and the complex structural and personal circumstances that lead to the event in the first place? Communities of color devastated by gun violence deserve the whole story to be told, not edited down to what is attention-grabbing. And this may also be precisely what local news organizations need to build and sustain trust, especially among communities of color who have too long been the object, not the subject, of reporting.

If we want to end gun violence in our city, and disrupt the “black” vs “blue” polarization, we need a collaborative effort to transform toxic narratives, starting with the headlines. Journalists need to tell the stories alongside those most impacted by the problem. News organizations need to support reporting that draws attention to root causes and humanizes victims on both sides of the gun. It’s the right thing to do. It’s also what local journalism needs to remain relevant.

Eric Gordon is a professor and director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, Chaplain Clementina M. Chery is president of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Dr. Peter T. Masiakos and Dr. Chana A. Sacks are co-directors of MGH’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention.They have just launched a collaborative initiative called Transforming Narratives of Gun Violence. Additional contributions were made by Maridena Rojas, the community engagement manager at Boston Project Ministries and Talbot Norfolk Triangle civic group.

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