Changing the discourse about community violence: To prevent it, we have to talk about it

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September 21, 2016

Community violence* happens when complex environmental factors like poverty, structural racism and lack of access to mental health services intersect with easy access to alcohol, drugs and weapons. Like other public health problems, violence is preventable, but it's not often understood that way. In fact, violence at the community level can feel inescapable — even people who haven't directly experienced it are inundated by a culture and a discourse that presents violence as constant, extreme and inevitable.

To prevent violence, we have to change the discourse about it. The discourse includes who speaks about violence and what is said, but even more than that, the discourse reflects who is deemed legitimate spokesperson and what solutions are considered credible. The public, and the policymakers whose actions and decisions shape communities, must understand and be able to talk about violence as a problem that every one of us, no matter what sector of society we occupy, has a role in solving.

pull quoteThe essential role of the media. The media have an especially important role to play in ending violence because the public gets exposed to violence (apart from personal experience) through the filter of what appears in the media. News coverage puts front and center the perspectives of leaders, celebrities and other individuals from every sector, so our understanding of community violence is influenced by what we see in print, hear in broadcast and experience in television and social media. Journalists (including the social media users who craft news) set the agenda for public policy debates2-5 by deciding which incidents of violence they report (or don't report) and how.

Unfortunately, we know from decades of news studies that patterns in news coverage may instill fear by highlighting the most extreme cases,7 reinforce stereotypes about who commits and is affected by violence,8, 9 and discourage positive action by buttressing assumptions that community violence is intractable. When news coverage doesn't include the community conditions that foster violence, policymakers and the public are less likely to make the connections to policies and strategies that can prevent violence. News coverage without context sets the stage for an "us versus them" debate and polarizes people and opinions, instead of providing a collaborative platform for developing effective solutions.

Reframing "community" violence

Changing the discourse is essential if the public, community leaders and decision-makers are going to embrace prevention. A first step is pulling back the lens on stories about individual victims and perpetrators to include the entire landscape in which violence occurs, along with the many possibilities for stopping violence before it starts and the role we each can play in preventing it.

Countless studies and public service organizations have demonstrated that multifaceted, community-based approaches, such as case management that includes counseling, education and job training for people who commit violence, are highly effective in reducing recidivism. However, these successful solutions are less visible than after-the-fact criminal justice responses, which the news tends to highlight. The challenge, then, is to reframe violence so it is understood as a public health problem in which after-the-fact responses are coupled with strategies for preventing violence before it starts.

"Community violence" and its converse, "community safety," are emerging as useful terms for understanding that change. Practitioners in the public health field are already using this language, which they describe as "more holistic" and preferable "because of the negative connotations of 'youth violence.'"1 Indeed, many practitioners avoid saying "youth violence" or "gang violence" because the terms may reinforce harmful stereotypes about who commits or experiences violence.

With this reframing in mind, wanted to know: What will it take to change the discourse around violence to elevate preventive solutions?

What we did

To learn what it will take to change the discourse and elevate prevention, we turned to the news — a highly credible source that influences how the public and policymakers understand issues. We systematically reviewed key California media outlets for three years to identify trends in news coverage of community violence and community safety, as well as limitations of that coverage and opportunities for key sectors to elevate and expand the frame (for a complete review of our methods, see Appendix A).

We also drew from in-depth interviews conducted by Prevention Institute in its quest to understand how senior-level violence prevention advocates and public health practitioners are seeing how the community violence frame plays out in their work of providing programming and services for people who commit or experience violence.

What we found

Although changing the discourse is a complex and long-term process, our analysis suggests that we are at a turning point with tremendous potential for effecting change. Specifically, though criminal justice remains integral to the conversation about community safety, we found new opportunities within "community" (rather than "crime") framing for public health practitioners and community members to make their experiences part of the story as well. Moreover, against a backdrop of national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, racial inequity and its shattering impact upon communities is becoming a regular part of the discourse. In this report, we present our findings and highlight how advocates and practitioners can leverage opportunities to take advantage of this pivotal turning point to change the discourse about violence.

News about individual crimes dwarfed coverage of community violence or community safety.

Stories about community violence went beyond narrow crime reports, but news about community violence or community safety in California was much less common than were stories about individual crimes (the types of stories that may reinforce damaging assumptions about violence). Between 2013 and 2015, articles about murder appeared in California news outlets almost 10 times more frequently than did articles about community violence or community safety (see below).


Community safety is absent from opinion coverage.

Opinion coverage, including letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs and editorials, can signal community interest about an issue and send a message to policymakers. But we found that the majority of the coverage about community violence and community safety in California was straight news; less than one-third of the stories were opinion pieces. There is an opportunity for health practitioners and violence prevention advocates to add their voices to influential opinion coverage in local news outlets.

When community safety is in the news, it's because of a program or an initiative.

Many factors can influence why reporters and editors select some stories and not others, from the details of a specific incident to what else competes for attention that day. Reporters refer to the catalyst for a story as a "news hook." We identified the news hook for articles to determine when and why the few stories about community violence that appeared in the news were covered. Why that story, and why that day? Previous research on violent crimes in the news has shown that milestones in the criminal justice process, like an arrest or a trial, are the news hooks for much violence coverage.10-12 When we searched the news for stories about community violence (instead of looking for crime coverage), we found that while criminal justice events (like murders or shootings) did drive some articles (see Appendix B for full results), the majority of articles were in the news because something noteworthy or groundbreaking had happened related to community-safety programs or policies, such as the passage of a bill to revise the bail system13 or a proposal to disarm security guards working in San Francisco's MUNI system14 to reduce the risk of gunfights.

Community safety was also newsworthy because it was a matter of local interest. One in 10 stories had a particular local focus. These included in-depth profiles of local police officers15 or other stakeholders (like elected officials) with a role to play in public safety. Controversies (like contentious gun-control rulings or policy fights) were another common news hook, as were vigils and other events relating to community safety.

As a national dialogue on police shootings of unarmed black men unfolded, the news about community safety increasingly included in-depth discussions of the impact of racism on communities.

The years 2013-2015 were marked by the tragic deaths of a number of young black men, many killed at the hands of police. Some of these incidents, like the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired nationwide protests. Ultimately, these events helped drive the national Black Lives Matter movement, which focuses in part on confronting and addressing racial inequity and its impact on community safety. We wondered how the Black Lives Matter movement, and discussions of racial inequity, played out in California news about community violence and safety during this period.

We found that, indeed, California news increasingly reflects the nationwide dialogues about racism and community violence (see Appendix B for results). For example, from 2013 to 2014, the number of articles that mentioned race tripled; although, in both years, race was usually mentioned in passing, as when a report on a gang-related attempted murder mentioned the race of the young men involved.16

In 2015, however, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained prominence nationally, the news about community safety increasingly addressed race and racism with more complexity and nuance. That year, nearly one-third of articles about community safety discussed race or racism and its impact on community safety. The majority of these articles discussed race and racism in a way that was remarkably in-depth: For example, one article about community-lead efforts to end violence included quotes from a resident who specifically addressed the multiple intersections of racism and safety, noting, "There's another kind of safety, particularly if you're a person of color. People need to feel safe from racial profiling."17 Other articles called for addressing racism as a strategy to build safe communities, as when an Oakland pastor wondered, "How do we restore the invisible humanity of young black men? We shouldn't judge them because of cultural differences but look for opportunities to heal."18

The impact of Black Lives Matter was also reflected in the increasing news focus on police reform over the three years of our study. Articles about police reform focused on both national events like the protests in Ferguson,19 as well as local controversies, as when Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez called for policy changes in Los Angeles and beyond that would "subject police officers to the same rules of justice as other criminal suspects."20

The discourse about community safety focuses on solutions, including community-led strategies to prevent violence.

Police reform was just one of the many solutions that appeared in news about community safety. That's unusual, since crime coverage tends to focus on problems, rather than how to solve them.7, 21 But the discourse around community violence is uniquely solutions-focused. In fact, more than half of articles about community violence and safety discussed a solution. Even more surprising, the majority of solutions described were preventive approaches to stop violence before it occurs.22 News characterizations of prevention changed dramatically over the years of our analysis. Initially, prevention was framed as a criminal justice issue: In 2013, for example, increasing police presence was the most frequently referenced approach to preventing violence. In a typical article, the mayor of Antioch urged the city to find ways to "pay for more officers and make us safer,"23 while in another story a Richmond resident called for "more police or more cameras or something. The streets are hot out here."24

california policy and community safety

Over time, however, we saw a shift toward a discourse that includes community-led efforts to prevent violence. Among the strategies that began to appear were filmmaking programs designed to help youth process trauma and avoid violence,25 community block parties17 and city-wide, multi-sector public safety plans to prevent violence.26

text boxThese types of articles presented opportunities for violence prevention advocates to pull back the lens and illustrate multi-sector collaboration, as well as the importance of collective action in building and maintaining safe communities. Reverend George Cummings, for example, argued that "the best root to reduction of violence in our communities is quality education for everybody. ... Impoverished communities don't have access to education, have limited access to jobs that pay a living wage. A web of issues create communities that produce violence among young men. Unless we address the root causes, we won't be able to make progress in the long-term."18

While preventive strategies gained prominence, criminal justice initially remained a significant part of the discourse around community violence and safety. Much of the news coverage focused on interventions (strategies to address community violence after it happened).

Criminal justice professionals consistently dominated the news conversation about community safety. Over time, however, community residents became increasingly visible.

Overall, the speakers quoted most often in stories about community violence or safety were criminal justice professionals and representatives of state and local government. But the shift toward community-led prevention efforts also had important implications for who spoke in the news about community safety. In 2013, we found that community residents were quoted in just one in 10 articles. In subsequent years, however, they were quoted significantly more frequently: In 2014 and 2015, they were quoted in approximately one-fifth of all articles (see Appendix B for full chart).

Community residents consistently used the news to provide details of their experiences with violence or make impassioned pleas for solutions. Others provided insight into the "on the ground" workings of community safety initiatives, as when a Los Angeles youth said of a community safety partnership, "The way they are dealing with people here, treating us like human beings, it makes us see the police don't have to be an enemy."27

News from different sectors seldom explicitly connects with community violence prevention — but it could.

Comprehensive violence prevention is a multi-sectoral effort that involves health care, schools, businesses, public health, youth-serving organizations, concerned citizens and many others.28 However, speakers from these sectors were largely absent from the news about community safety.

The absence of speakers from different sectors points to an overall pattern in the coverage: It tends to obscure the larger social and economic context in which violence occurs, as well as the many players and institutions that are part of it. To change the discourse and help people understand community violence as a preventable problem, that context needs to be visible in news stories.

Connections to the context in which violence occurs can be made in stories about any sector that could play a role in preventing violence. We wondered: If community violence isn't explicitly addressed in articles from different sectors, where could violence prevention or community safety appear in news about, for example, business, health care or education? What are the existing opportunities in the news to demonstrate how sectors could partner in preventing community violence and building safer, stronger communities?

We found that community violence rarely appears explicitly in education news, and never in business news or health care news. However, we found multiple themes in news from each sector (particularly the education and health care sectors) that easily connect to how that sector could prevent future community violence and build or sustain safe communities.

frequency of articles from different sectors containing themes that cound connect with community violence prevention

Business news regularly included stories about wage and labor issues, which can affect community members' ability to maintain stable employment and quality of life. Education coverage included stories about graduation rates and other educational benchmarks that affect both individual and community outcomes. Health care stories, meanwhile, often focused on health care costs and health care access, which have important implications for how well people are able to access needed mental health and other services that could help prevent community violence before it occurs.

In short, there are many opportunities in the news for advocates, practitioners, public health leaders and reporters to connect stories from a range of sectors with community violence prevention and draw members of those sectors into the conversation about building safe communities.

Conclusions and recommendations

Shifting the discourse to elevate prevention and multi-sector collaboration is critical to helping policymakers see solutions as possible, viable and necessary. Our analysis suggests reasons for optimism in California news stories that focused on community violence and community safety. This kind of media coverage offers an important and evolving pivot point in the discourse to shift the discussion toward prevention and collective, cross-sector action. Specifically, we found that:

  • While articles focusing on community violence and community safety rarely appear in the news compared with stories about individual crimes, when they do appear, they are driven by innovations or breakthroughs in programs or policies;
  • News about community violence and safety increasingly offers opportunities for in-depth discussions of racism and its impact on community safety;
  • Coverage of community safety focuses on solutions with preventive approaches, with police reform becoming increasingly visible in the news between 2013 and 2015;
  • Criminal justice professionals dominate the news conversation about community safety, but community residents have a growing presence; and
  • There are a number of unexplored opportunities to connect news from different sectors with community violence prevention.

recommendations

Our findings indicate the beginnings of a shift in discussions of community safety that, with the right attention and action, hold promise for shifting the discourse. To help achieve the goals of elevating prevention and including the experiences and expertise of the many different stakeholders whose participation in civic life and public policy is foundational to community safety, we propose that advocates and practitioners:

Build on the strengths of the community safety frame to address prevention.

When stories with a community safety frame do appear, they are often rich in detail about the context of violence and include policy solutions. Expanding this frame is an opportunity to tell nuanced stories about preventing community violence — stories that underscore the role that different stakeholders and sectors play in building and maintaining safe communities. It will be critical to develop and disseminate tools and trainings to equip advocates with the skills to effectively communicate about community safety.

Use opinion space proactively and reactively.

We found very little opinion coverage, which means health experts and advocates are missing opportunities to shape the public and policy agendas around community safety. Practitioners and advocates can regularly contribute proactive or reactive opinion pieces to newspapers and blogs. One proactive strategy is to meet with editorial boards and request editorials supporting prevention, since a well-timed editorial can be very persuasive during policy debates. A reactive strategy is to write a letter to the editor to tactfully address incomplete or inaccurate news coverage on community violence or safety — or to compliment a reporter for effectively reporting on prevention. Both strategies can bring solutions to the fore in public discourse.

Advocates should monitor the news and be poised to respond with timely opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Online news outlets and social media are other important spaces where advocates and those who have experienced violence can share their stories and shift the discourse.

Expand the field of messengers to shift the discourse around community safety.

Criminal justice speakers typically advocate for criminal justice responses to violence, and they are the speakers who dominate the coverage. Expanding the field of voices to include speakers and experts from a breadth of sectors (including for example, health care, education, business and local residents with a wide range of experience) will broaden the perspectives and range of solutions that the public and policymakers will then see as viable. This broader conversation about solutions can shift the discourse from emphasizing criminal justice to including strategies to build and maintain communities without violence.

Build relationships with reporters.

Health practitioners, educators and other experts could more easily join community representatives in news stories if they develop relationships with journalists and make themselves available when news happens. Journalists can incorporate public health perspectives into their work and include diverse sources in their stories only if they are familiar with them, their resources and their networks. It's important to establish new — and build on — existing relationships with reporters, producers, bloggers and other media professionals covering community violence, so they come to see advocates and health practitioners as a valued source of information.

When advocates, practitioners, educators and community residents become a trusted contact, reporters have somewhere to go for a statement, data or other information when they have a story to tell about violence, crime and safety — and they will be better poised to pitch story ideas that raise the profile of violence as a preventable problem. Advocates can also connect journalists with sources who have firsthand experience with the issue at hand and are prepared not only to tell their personal stories, but also to point to policy solutions. Otherwise, most journalists will rely on their traditional contacts, many of which will be criminal justice sources.

Pitch stories that broaden the conversation around violence.

Pitching stories persuasively increases the likelihood that reporters will follow up on the story idea. As 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt famously said, reporters don't tell issues, they tell stories, so those who want news attention must learn to craft their pitch with this in mind. For instance, the general topic of "community safety" isn't a story, but when someone — from any of the sectors implicated in violence prevention — is doing something about community safety, it is. Advocates and health practitioners could pitch stories about programs to build youth resilience and job readiness in their community, research that explains the root causes of violence, or strategies that cross sectors to reach communities affected by violence.

Pitches can be for original story ideas, or they can "piggyback" off of other news stories by applying a new angle — one that incorporates community safety or violence prevention — to an existing discussion. Either way, a pitch should answer basic questions like: What happened or is going to happen? Why is it interesting, important or newsworthy? Who is the story about? Were and when will it happen? Who is impacted?

Changing the discourse around violence can seem overwhelming, but as the country grapples with difficult conversations about race, violence and community, the public narrative around these issues is in flux. At this critical juncture, community residents, public health practitioners and others are uniquely poised to shift the discourse toward narratives that elevate prevention, multi-sector partnership and community leadership. That attainable and necessary public discourse will set the stage for discussion of more effective and just policies and, ultimately, for stronger and safer communities.

Appendix A: What we did

Our analysis encompassed three years of coverage from six major newspapers covering California, with special attention to Northern California: the Contra Costa Times, The Sacramento Bee, Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the Los Angeles Times. We chose to analyze newspapers because, although new media platforms are changing the way people consume the news, newspapers (including their online components) continue to influence local and national policy debates, and traditional news outlets remain a key source of information for the majority of news consumers.29

We conducted two separate but related studies. The first was a traditional content analysis that used key word searches to identify articles of interest. For the second, we developed new methodology to ascertain how community safety and violence prevention might appear in stories about in three key sectors: education, business and health care.

Study 1: How did community violence and safety appear in the news?

Using the Lexis Nexis and Newsbank databases, we searched for articles published between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2015 that referenced community safety or community violence (and all variants, such as "violence in communities" and "safety of the community"). We then read a small number of stories. Based on that reading, we adapted coding instruments we had used in previous analyses of news coverage of different types of violence. Our coding instrument was also informed by a review of the public health and violence prevention literature, as well as conversations with prevention experts and practitioners. Before coding the full sample, we used an iterative process and statistical test to ensure that coders' agreement wasn't occurring by chance.

We found 576 stories from which we randomly selected half to analyze. Of the 260 articles in our sample, only 196 substantively discussed community violence. Irrelevant articles tended to focus on issues like traffic safety or on local political debates in which candidates use terms like "community safety" to describe their platforms. The final analysis included 196 articles: 75 from 2013, 59 from 2014, and 62 from 2015.

Study 2: How could community violence and safety appear in news coverage from different sectors?

We used an iterative literature review process and interviews with field experts to develop a coding instrument for this analysis. We mapped the themes that emerged against a modified version of the Haddon Matrix (a tool developed in the 1970s, which has since been used to address a number of public health and safety issues).30 The Haddon Matrix helped us assess how different themes in business, health care and education could connect to community violence prevention and safety.

Specifically, for each article, we assessed:

  • Which themes in the stories relate to how community violence affects the business, health care or education sectors?
  • Which themes relate to how the business, health care or education sectors reinforce or perpetuate violence within that sector?
  • Which themes relate to how the sector mitigates violence or promotes safety within the sector?
  • Which themes relate to how those sectors could prevent or, conversely, contribute to future community violence?

Using a constructed week sampling methodology,31, 32 we collected stories published during 2015 from the business and education sections, as well as all those tagged "business" or "education" in the Nexis database, from the relevant papers (except the Oakland Tribune). We analyzed each article for the presence or absence of the community safety-related themes we identified. For example, education coverage sometimes included stories about high school dropout rates. Failure to complete high school is a risk factor for economic instability and contact with the criminal justice system,33 so ensuring that students graduate is one way that the education system can improve community safety. An article reporting on high school graduation rates might make that connection to violence explicitly, but it might not. If the article did mention the connection, we would note that explicit mention of violence prevention. If not, we would note that the article could potentially have connected with community violence because of the presence of themes relating to how education can prevent future community violence.

As before, prior to coding the full sample, we used an iterative process and statistical test to ensure that coders' agreement wasn't occurring by chance.

We found 595 articles: 171 education articles, 310 business articles and 114 health care articles. Due to the high volume of business stories, we randomly selected half of the business stories to code. After we discarded the articles that were not substantively about education or business (for example, a community calendar that appeared in the education sample because it listed an event to be held in a high school gymnasium, or an article about community politics that was tagged "business" because it mentioned the Chamber of Commerce in passing), we had 110 business articles, 126 education articles and 63 health care articles to analyze.

Appendix B: Tables and charts

why community violence articles appeared in california news coverage

how often race or racism were mentioned in california newspaper coverage of community violence or safety

who spoke in california news coverage of community violence or safety

Acknowledgments

This paper was written by Pamela Mejia, MS, MPH; Lillian Seklir, BA; Laura Nixon, MPH; and Lori Dorfman, DrPH, of Berkeley Media Studies Group, with funding support for the study and graphic design support from Kaiser Permanente in northern California.

We thank Jodi Ravel and Denice Alexander of Kaiser Permanente for their thoughtful guidance and feedback. In addition, this work would not have been possible without the valuable input of current and past members of the Prevention Institute staff, including Rachel Davis, Ali Goodyear, Mego Lien and Annie Lyles. Thanks also to current and past members of the staff at Berkeley Media Studies Group, especially Elizabeth Arbatman, Alysha Aziz and Michael Bakal.

We are grateful for the insights, wisdom and candor of the many community practitioners and advocates who collaborated with us in this work, including: Jose Arreola and Fernanda Ocaña, City of Salinas; Teresa Voge, City of Sonoma Department of Health Services; Manny González, County Administrative Office of Monterey County; Samuel Nuñez and Tariq Mohammed, Families and Fathers of San Joaquin; Ricardo Garcia-Acosta and Jesus Yanez, Instituto Familiar de la Raza; Jenn Radar, James Morehouse Project; Ashley McCoy and Jamie Perrell, Kids First; Martin López Diaz, Jr., Lifelong Medical Care; Rosemary Soto, Monterey County Violence Prevention Initiative; Sara Serin-Christ, Oakland Unite.

References

*Community violence refers to "intentional acts of interpersonal violence committed in public areas by individuals who are not intimately related to the victim." (See: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Community violence. 2015. Available at: http://www.nctsn.org/trauma-types/community-violence. Accessed May 11, 2015.)

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