How Americans think and feel about gun violence

A man killed his wife, then himself. I want you to see his face and learn that he enjoyed fishing with his grandchildren. A small-time drug dealer is shot by two men in a parking lot. I find his Facebook profile and a photo shows him striking a playfully irreverent pose, giving the camera the middle finger. The photo’s comments take a mournful turn after a certain date. “Rest easy bro ???”

Gun Memorial runs dozens of stories like this every day. These photos and profiles reveal an obvious but rarely seen truth about guns in America -- that every shooting death rips a hole in a family and wounds a circle of friends.

I often ask myself why I am doing this work. Does anyone want to see all these victims’ faces and can it make any impact? It always felt that it was the right thing to do, but why? I did some introspection and looked at the history of “crusading journalism” to help answer these questions.

When journalists crusade

Journalists value objectivity, but investigative journalism has always been a type of public advocacy; investigations often uncover facts and tell stories intended to sway public opinion and trigger reforms. If the journalist has kept an open mind, avoided biases, and reported honestly then we applaud such efforts. Gun Memorial follows journalistic standards of accuracy, but it may not meet traditional standards of newsworthiness; it’s not clear that anyone cares about our aggregation of victims’ stories or that anything can be done to solve the problem they depict. The norms of professional journalism seem to restrict investigators to telling more clearcut stories, directly relevant to their audience.

Muckraking journalists of the early 1900s surely knew their audiences. They unearthed stories of cold-hearted greed in the halls of power, stories that felt authentic to working-class readers who suffered daily exploitation from the industrial and political elite.

On the other hand, most Americans today will never be the victim of a violent crime, yet it’s one of the most popular topics covered in the news. The public tends to view violent crime as a significant societal problem, even if it isn’t a personal problem. What bothers me is that public opinion about solutions has been biased by the way that homicide news is gathered by reporters; I will argue that it makes us more reactive than proactive.

How “objectivity” spoiled homicide coverage

I see dozens of homicide news stories every day and they usually fit a pattern. For example, A TV anchor standing at the scene of the crime reports that 19-year-old John Doe was killed at this gas station on Route 54, and a white Ford Explorer was spotted fleeing the scene. A few days later we get an update from the studio: Two men were arrested and charged with murder, and we see their mugshots. These reports are easy to prepare and they’re based entirely on hard facts reported by police. But police reports don’t tell the full story; they tell us much more about the suspects’ misdeeds than about the human loss incurred. We can easily conclude that the perpetrators deserve some punishment, but we don’t know enough about the victim to really care that he’s dead and we are certainly not motivated to tackle the complex problem of preventing future incidents like this.

The value of a human life is very subjective, but surely it’s never zero. Describing a homicide victim requires some extra effort and editorial judgement, but ignoring the victim entirely is an editorial choice, too.

Introducing the subjective

Gun Memorial, by its design, presents a very different picture of gun-related deaths in the U.S. Most importantly, we show a photo of every victim. A single photo changes the entire tenor of the story, reminding readers that the victims are humans, Americans, New Yorkers, Texans, sisters, fathers, mechanics, nurses, college graduates, dropouts, entrepreneurs, football fans, students, retirees -- whomever you can imagine. Gun Memorial shows how gun violence is relevant to all Americans.

When the website launched in January, I had not clearly identified an audience, mission, or strategy. I just posted victims’ stories and expected people to notice and care. Some did notice, mainly the family and friends of the recently deceased, about 65,000 visitors a month. These survivors have been more than just an audience; they have contributed photos and biographical information, helping us to really show who is killed.

We take great satisfaction is serving the survivors of gun violence, but we are still working on reaching a broader audience and building empathy.

Finding your readers’ heartstrings

When you visit the Gun Memorial homepage, you’ll probably scroll through a few dozen victims’ photos, feel kind of depressed, and leave the site. The site’s presentation works for me personally, and perhaps for gun violence survivors, because we are already deeply interested in the topic, but the site lacks story lines that resonate with an “average reader.”

I often say that Gun Memorial is targeting a broad national audience, but that’s a conflict in terms. To “target everyone” is to not target at all. I see that as one of our biggest shortcomings: that our homepage and the site’s browsing experience is identical for every visitor.

I had assumed that visitors browsing the site would be drawn-in by victims whose appearance doesn’t fit gun violence stereotypes. However, it’s just as easy for visitors to focus on those victims that do confirm their biases. We can try to overcome those biases by automatically filtering the victims. We can show victims near you. We can offer the option to choose a particular category of victims before showing the full list. We can cross-reference the incidents with census data to show victims who died in wealthy, middle-class, or poor neighborhoods. We have examples of every imaginable type of gun violence victim.

Building empathy is a gradual process, and it has to start with the familiar. Maybe you see an armed-robbery victim who resembles your neighbor, or you see a 7-year-old who accidentally shot herself in your town. Eventually you may see the humanity in that drug dealer and think about his mother or children.

So, yes, I will continue to do this work. Because it’s irresponsible for journalists to ignore the very human losses that supposedly make gun violence incidents newsworthy. It still feels like the right thing to do.

About the author

Steve Tarzia

Professional Fellow

Sr. Computational Research Consultant at @GunMemorial.

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