REPORTING ON VIOLENCE - a handbook for journalists
Following are four articles that appeared in major metropolitan daily newspapers. The articles are fairly typical of violence reporting as it exists in daily journalism. After each article is a rewrite. The rewrite puts the crime in perspective, points out risk factors and addresses consequences by:
These rewrites are presented only as suggestions - there's no right way to do this, just each individual newspaper's way. Another method of presenting the story is to leave the "before" article as it is and add only graphs and sidebars. And yet another way is to put all violent crime stories on one page with standing graphs, charts and maps that update the incidence and location of crime. For example, two murder stories could run on the page - one a family violence homicide and the other a gang-related homicide - with a single graph updating the number, types and locations of murders in the community, with comparisons to state and national figures.
Clearly, this new approach requires that more space be devoted to violence reporting, which is an issue for the printed versions of newspapers, though not necessarily for electronic versions. If a newspaper decides to take this approach, its editors and reporters could devise criteria for deciding which violence stories will receive a more complete allocation of resources, which include reporters' and editors' time, as well as newspaper space.
Putting violent incidents in perspective, identifying factors determined by epidemiologists as contributing to violent incidents and quantifying the consequences of the violent incidents on family and community:
The Violence Against Women Act, which was signed into law on September 13, 1994, provides for improved prevention and prosecution of violent crimes against women and children. Funding was authorized to state and local governments at $27 million for fiscal year 1995, $264.4 million for fiscal year 1996, $298.15 million for fiscal year 1997, $367.15 million for fiscal year 1998, $282.9 million for fiscal year 1999 and $291.9 million for fiscal year 2000. Have these funds been reauthorized? Is this money being used locally? How?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected an emerging problem of date violence. Where and to whom is it likely to occur? Is this linked to family violence?
Family violence abuse programs are expanding their attention to the batterer as well as the victim. The central focus in much of the domestic violence arena has been: Why is she staying with him, and how can we get her to leave? Now a focus being given equal weight is: Why is he abusing her, and what can we do to stop him? How is this changing how the programs work?
Half of all child abuse is neglect. How does neglect relate to violence among youth later in their lives? Does the sex and the age of the child relate to whether he or she is a victim of abuse or neglect?
Why doesn't the federal government have a firearm fatality reporting system similar to the Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration? FARS uses police records and death certificates to assemble data about the driver (age, sex, blood alcohol level and fault), the vehicle (vehicle identification number that reveals the make, manufacturer and product characteristics) and the environment (weather, location and roadway conditions). This information has been used to develop changes in automobile design, new legislation and public health campaigns that have decreased automobile deaths and injuries.
A proposed firearm fatality reporting system would collect information on the victim and perpetrator (age, sex, race, blood alcohol level or other drugs), the gun (caliber, make and model, how obtained) and the circumstances (relationship of victim and perpetrator, location of injury or death, precipitating event). At present, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports system collects information only about the circumstances and demographic characteristics of those involved in firearm homicides. Weapon description is limited to "handgun, shotgun or rifle." For suicides and unintentional deaths, even this basic information is usually not available.
How and why did Congress essentially stop the Centers for Disease Control from funding any further research into firearms epidemiology?
Technology has been developed to personalize weapons so that only the owner of a gun can shoot it. Is the technology useful? What are its limitations? What organizations support the technology? Which oppose it and why?
The National Rifle Association used to take a more moderate stance on issues of gun violence, until its leadership changed. Is there a growing division between the membership and the leadership of the National Rifle Association? How much of the membership supports banning the sale of handguns and banning assault weapons?
Since most gunshot victims don't have insurance, how much is it costing taxpayers to patch up their wounds, to pay for rehabilitation or convalescent care?
What is the history of weapon use among gang members, and how has the availability of firearms changed the rate of homicide among this group?
Why are imported handguns subject to an array of safety and quality requirements, while U.S.-made handguns are not? How big a problem are U.S.-manufactured guns that could not be brought in from overseas? Why does no agency have authority to regulate handgun design and commerce with the public safety in mind?
How easy is it for youth to buy handguns? What is the level of handgun activity among youth in this community? Are local gun control ordinances effective in reducing handgun availability?
Technology is leading to smaller firearms with longer caliber and increased lethality - how is that being manifested in this community?
Much of the violence associated with alcohol involves people who indulge in binge drinking - getting drunk, usually on a weekend night - but who do not necessarily otherwise have a problem with alcohol or are alcoholics. What are violence prevention programs doing about binge drinking? What are communities and businesses such as bars doing about binge drinking?
Have violent incidents been reduced in those communities that have banned alcohol at sporting events and where bar owners have been educated about limiting alcohol to patrons?
What are the limits of California's Alcohol Beverage Control agency to enforce state laws regarding alcohol outlets?
Are counties sending youth offenders to the California Youth Authority in an effort to save money when the youth would be better served by staying in their own communities?
Data indicate that in most communities a relatively small proportion of violence is gang-related, yet popular perceptions closely link youth violence with gangs. Some youth violence prevention approaches see positive aspects of gang membership and focus on changing violent behavior as opposed to gang membership. Is it possible that in some circumstances gangs can be part of the solution to violence among youth?
What types of violence prevention programs are being funded in this community? What is their effectiveness?
Are banks inadvertently financing violent activity in poor urban areas by providing loans for alcohol outlets to the exclusion of other businesses? Do they fund different types of businesses in different neighborhoods?
Is there a link between violent incidents and economics in a community in which jobs are rapidly declining?