Mass Shootings. Illustration By: Sean Mac

Who Defines a Mass Shooting? The Media.

Chicago reporters, scholars, and activists weigh in on the way the media covers mass shootings—and how it could do better

In March, tragedies in Boulder and Atlanta again brought America’s mass shooting epidemic to the forefront of national attention. Meeting public outcry, major news outlets ramped up their gun violence coverage with reports on weapons and lists of recent mass shootings.

But some Chicagoans, still reeling from mass-casualty shootings that added to a year already wrought with gun violence, were quick to point out the city’s exclusion from national headlines.

Missing from most lists: two mass shootings in Chicago’s South Side that happened just days apart from the events in Atlanta and Boulder. On March 14, fifteen people were shot at a party in Park Manor, and on March 26 eight were shot outside of a storefront in Wrightwood. Neither Chicago shooting garnered similar national coverage.

“There’s a hierarchy to gun violence,” said Lakeidra Chavis, who reports on gun violence in Chicago for The Trace. “I think the way we talk about mass shootings—in a very specific way that excludes the mass shootings that happen in Chicago—creates a hierarchy that disproportionately leaves people of color out of the conversation.”

Last month Chavis’s colleagues at The Trace reported that in 2020, mass shootings increased in predominantly Black communities, such as those in Chicago. This year, Chicago has already surpassed the number of gun violence deaths that occurred during the same period in 2020, according to CPD statistics. Yet multiple-casualty incidents rarely receive mention in national coverage of mass shootings.

Eddie Bocanegra, senior director at Heartland Alliance’s READI Chicago, spends his days trying to interrupt the cycle of gun violence in the city. READI Chicago works with those at the highest risk of gun violence, giving them job opportunities and mentorship. Bocanegra said he can list several shootings off the top of his head in which multiple program participants, all “good men,” were killed.

And every time, he’s wondered where the national outrage was.

“Why is it their lives were not as worth covering as other lives?” he asked. “Is it because we see these other people as innocent, because they were sitting in a beauty shop? Or were in a school? Or were in a movie theater? Or at a church or synagogue?”

 

 

Following the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, The New York Times published a list of mass shootings that have occurred within the last five years using data compiled by the Violence Project. Neither the Times nor the Violence Project included the two incidents that most recently happened in Chicago, despite other major news outlets like CNN including them in a similar list of recent mass shootings.

South Side Weekly asked the Times reporters who authored the article why they included specific mass shootings, but not others, in the list. We were referred to the Times’s public relations department, who said to compare CNN’s list to their list was “apples to oranges.” The Times said their list was compiled according to shootings with the highest death counts, but that some shootings such as the Capital Gazette shooting were included for “other reasons.” However, the article itself does not distinguish that the shootings included were those with the most fatalities.

A 2017 study in the Journal of Crime and Justice examined the Times’s coverage of ninety mass shootings between 2000 and 2012. They found that the Times disproportionately allocated coverage to the highest-fatality shootings. For nearly seventy-eight percent of mass shootings included in the study, there were fewer than five articles written. 

Coverage of mass shootings is often framed by the way a newsroom defines what constitutes one. Many newsrooms, and databases such as the Violence Project, use the Congressional Research Service’s definition:

“A multiple homicide incident in which four or more victims are murdered with firearms—not including the offender(s)—within one event, and at least some of the murders occurred in a public location or locations in close geographical proximity (e.g., a workplace, school, restaurant, or other public settings), and the murders are not attributable to any other underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle).”        

Other newsrooms have their own definitions. For example, CNN uses “a shooting incident that results in four or more casualties (dead or wounded), excluding the shooter(s).” Scholars argue that a less restrictive definition, such as the one CNN uses, is conducive to more accurate gun violence coverage.

“[Media attention] gives our country a misunderstanding about the burden of gun violence,” said Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy. “It over-accentuates these extremely rare mass shootings that are happening in these locations and underemphasizes the daily gun violence that’s happening, which clouds our understanding of what effective gun solutions are to reduce gun violence in our country.”

The Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy uses a definition for mass shootings that includes casualties in addition to fatalities. Their definition also removes the parameter that a “mass shooting” must occur in a public place. These distinctions are important, according to Crifasi, because they emphasize consideration of gun violence survivors and gun-related domestic violence in policy considerations. Crifasi said evidence suggests many mass shooting sprees begin inside the home.

In fact, during President Joe Biden’s much-anticipated speech on April 8 to address his administration’s gun violence policies, he too referenced the fact that some fifty-three women are shot and killed every month in gun-related domestic violence incidents.

“If we’re only focusing on the most extreme end of the spectrum, we’re missing out on potential solutions,” Crifasi said.

Based on her reporting for Trace, Chavis has come to a similar conclusion: restrictive definitions of mass shootings have consequences. After the shooting in Boulder, Chavis said some of her sources in Chicago’s Black communities expressed feeling ignored by the media. They didn’t understand why coverage is so different when gun violence happens in Black communities.

“It has very serious repercussions when public discourse around gun violence and mass shootings leaves out an entire portion of our society,” Chavis said. “We as journalists have to reflect on the unintentional harm that causes.”

While national media outlets tend to omit Chicago entirely, local media “oversaturates” news coverage of crime without substantial discussion of context and solutions, according to Christopher Benson, a professor of media studies at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism whose work focuses on media responsibility and its role in shaping public perception.

Benson said that the daily coverage of gun violence combined with reinforced stereotypes about communities of color, especially Black communities, contributes to a sort of “detachment” from the violence occurring in Chicago. Lack of discussion about context, underlying issues, and possible solutions function to make gun violence an issue that many Chicagoans attribute solely to criminal or gang-related activity.

 

 

A 2018 study in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency found that when journalists reported a mass shooting was gang related, the perpetrators were generally people of color. Additionally, the stories referenced their criminal histories and framed them as being a danger to the public. When the shooter was white, they were nineteen times more likely to be referred to as suffering from a mental illness and that the incident was out-of-character or they were suffering from extreme life circumstances.

This “numbing down” or neutralizing of gun violence in Black communities makes it so that when mass casualty shootings occur in Chicago, they are less likely to garner the type of outrage seen in Atlanta and Boulder, according to Benson.

“Is there a difference between a mass shooting that makes national headlines and a shooting where eight or nine people are shot in Chicago? No, there is no difference,” Chavis said, based on her reporting with The Trace. “At the end of the day, you still have people who have either lost their lives to gun violence or they are now faced with a years-long journey to whatever mental or physical injuries they have from that shooting. Trauma is trauma.”

The journalists, scholars, and activists who spoke to the Weekly agreed that something needs to change. Despite valiant and notable efforts from many journalists and local newsrooms, there should be an industry-wide reimagining of how to cover gun violence and, specifically, mass shootings.

Speaking to the Weekly in separate interviews, Benson, Chavis, and Bocanegra all emphasized the need for better community context, in-depth reporting on underlying issues, centering the voices of survivors, and more discussion of solutions. While difficult to include all of this when writing wire reports or spot news stories on tight deadlines, Benson said it would be beneficial to public understanding for newsrooms to prioritize this type of coverage through enterprise stories or special reports.

“Nobody’s born bad, people are not born bad,” Bocanegra said. “Somewhere in their journey, things happen. It’s really important that as a society, we understand that not all of us have the same opportunities or level of access.”

“You have the power to control that, you as a reporter and your colleagues in this space.”

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Madison Muller is a graduate student at Northwestern University studying social justice journalism. She last reported on first-person COVID-19 accounts from thirteen men incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center.

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