New York Amsterdam News, a weekly Black-owned newspaper and one of the oldest Black-run papers in the U.S., is one media outlet that bridges the gaps in gun violence reporting, while also understanding its impact on the city. For instance, how were students at a nearby school impacted in the days after they witnessed a 22-year-old man in Harlem shot in broad daylight? What context could help us understand why a gunman in New York went on a shooting spree, ultimately taking two lives in December?
In a front-page letter published last year, New York Amsterdam News publisher and editor-in-chief Elinor Tatum explained that after typical coverage of gun violence in predominantly Black and brown communities is churned out, we “rarely hear anything else” about the shooting.
“It is easy to write that six people were shot on a summer weekend but it is much harder to explain how the families of these victims have been shattered and their communities torn apart,” Tatum wrote.
While fleshing out the stories of those impacted by gun violence and the ripple effect these shootings have on surrounding communities has not been a standard in the news industry, some outlets are beginning to take this approach. These newsrooms and media initiatives are trying to shift the way crime and violence is reported by reimagining existing industry standards and practices, interrogating the overarching narratives that drive traditional crime coverage, and widening access to the field for reporters who can provide more honest and complex perspectives to these issues. The ultimate goal is to ground crime reporting in the humanity of impacted individuals and communities instead of focusing on flat data and statistics that rarely move readers to work toward change.
“It is simple to quote statistics as if each number was not an individual dream erased, a hope snuffed out at the end of a barrel of a gun,” Tatum wrote.
Questioning narratives about crime
In the months leading up to November’s midterm elections, stories about violent crime dominated political coverage and sponsored campaign ads. The media focus on certain highly publicized crimes, along with major cities’ increased investment in police, creates a fear factor that doesn’t align with actual data and fails to seek real solutions. According to 2021 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there has been no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate. In the past two decades, incidents in the seven “major felony” categories have also decreased across New York City.
Yet, public perceptions about crime are distorted—in large part by the way crime reporting centers particularly heinous incidents and positions police and prosecutors as the purveyors of public safety. A Pew Research Center survey from last year found that 61% of registered voters saw violent crime as “very important” when casting their ballots, with older and conservative Republican voters more likely to name it as a key voting issue.
With such profound political implications, newsrooms like New York Amsterdam News are thinking about their own role in the media ecosystem. Tatum’s letter not only outlined the pitfalls of current coverage but also highlighted how the outlet is experimenting with its own solution through the new three-year, $3 million initiative called Beyond the Barrel of the Gun. It is the largest-scale investment made in gun violence reporting by a Black-owned media outlet.
Controlling your own story
While initiatives like Beyond the Barrel of the Gun are exploring new ways for journalists to nurture relationships with communities touched by gun violence and the people crafting solutions to address it, others are focused on innovative ways to collapse the barriers between these groups entirely, such as providing directly impacted people with journalism training and support. These initiatives aim to support those closest to the issue to not just share how newsrooms should cover crime, but put their ideas into action as reporters.
In a 2019 WHYY News essay Derrick Cain, the writer and director of community engagement at the journalism organization Resolve Philly, wrote about his unexpected career journey. Cain grew up in a stable, loving family and went on to get married and build his own family. But when finances drew thin and banks repeatedly denied Cain the loans he needed to get his real estate business off the ground, he turned to selling drugs. In 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison under mandatory minimum laws.
While inside, Cain was featured in a Philadelphia Daily News story about the impact of mandatory minimums, stirring a series of events that would become an inflection point in Cain’s life. The following week, Cain read a comment to the Daily News story from reader Rich Kraus. In it, Kraus called Cain a “bad example” and wrote that “sympathy is for the people who lost a loved one to drugs.”
The brief but charged comment served as Cain’s introduction to the narratives that prevail about people entangled in the criminal legal system. Upon his release, Cain began mentoring and speaking out about his story.
“That piece written about me about my time inside motivated me to want to come out and tell my story, but tell it through my lens and not through the lens of a journalist who most of the time doesn’t have the experience or background and understanding of that situation,” Cain said in an interview with Prism.
Through that early work, Cain was introduced to the Media Justice Fellowship run by Reentry Think Tank, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit committed to providing resources to formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The fellowship’s mission was to uplift and recognize directly impacted folks as experts primed to change the way reporters cover the criminal legal system, and to amplify the positive impacts that media coverage can play in shaping policy and public opinion.
Fellows in the program were all formerly incarcerated individuals with varying levels of journalism experience and different reentry stories—some had been home for years and others had just returned. The expertise and experiences of these fellows were supplemented by intensive training around media literacy, journalism ethics, storytelling craft, pitch development, and interviewing. Current media professionals served as mentors and guideposts for fellows as they honed their ideas, pitched their pieces, and reported their stories.
Cain’s fellowship project focused on formerly incarcerated people starting businesses. He wanted to highlight how they were working to make a living for themselves and to support and improve their communities.
“Those stories are so much more profound, solution-oriented, and useful in the real world,” said Mark Strandquist, Reentry Think Tank’s co-director. “So there was a lot of looking at things like Central Park Five and these historic moments where media narratives created really violent and destructive moments, as well as really amazing models of alternatives.”
A call to action for newsrooms
Increasing pressure for legacy media outlets to rethink their approach to crime reporting seems to be creating more fertile ground for initiatives like Beyond the Barrel of a Gun. Meanwhile, projects like the Media Justice Fellowship are emerging independently within nonprofits and forming strategic partnerships with mainstream publications. Advocates are hopeful that these changes may lead to a larger ripple effect across the industry.
For example, while the Media Justice Fellowship is not currently operating, it has had a lasting impact on the lives of past fellows and on Philadelphia’s media landscape. Other Philadelphia-based initiatives aimed at rethinking the city’s crime beat—such as Free Press’ Shift the Narrative Project—have cited the fellowship as inspiration for their work.
According to Strandquist and Bowles, fellows have since gone on to publish first-person pieces for outlets like the Marshall Project and have launched careers as writers and journalists. However, the time spent together in the fellowship remains a less tangible but perhaps most indelible legacy of the project. Strandquist says that by developing their article pitches and story ideas, the fellows were in effect sharing themselves, their experiences, and their resources with each other. It made the experience one in which the fellows were collectively supporting each other through the process, rather than just engaging in individual reflection.
“It was just so powerful to see how the process of creating these pieces became this really incredible mutual support system for each other,” Strandquist said.
When fellows were working in the final leg of their fellowship to get their pieces published, they were also engaging with newsrooms and media professionals about the importance of their roles as storytellers and the ways their reporting could affect the industry.
“Not only is this story going to be told, but they’re the best journalists to tell it,” Strandquist said. “This is about training a new group of incredible journalists who could do so much powerful work, and it’s about these media outlets and journalists and editorial boards hearing the ways in which they need to also transform their work.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Our in-depth and thought-provoking journalism reflects the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice. We tell stories from the ground up to disrupt harmful narratives, and to inform movements for justice. Sign up for our newsletter to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.