Violence is a public health problem. It is the confluence of many complex environmental factors like poverty, racial discrimination, and easy access to alcohol, drugs and weapons. Like many other public health issues, it is also preventable. But policies that invest in prevention are in short supply, and messages that reflect the need for those policies don’t often reach the public. Instead, much of what we know about violence -- beyond what we experience personally -- comes to us through the filter of what news reporters think is important and what publishers think will sell papers. This means that the most shocking (and rare) crimes like school shootings tend to get the most attention, while the frequency of other serious crimes such as domestic violence is understated. Crime reporting also typically focuses on isolated episodes of violence rather than exploring trends, asking why it happens or seeking out solutions that could prevent it in the future. This police-blotter style of reporting instills fear, discourages positive action and reinforces American cultural assumptions that violence is inevitable. It also makes advocates’ efforts to shape crime policy to include investments in prevention that much harder.
the path to success
Combating violence requires enacting policies to change the conditions that give rise to it. Besides improving police enforcement, policy solutions should help increase wages, improve the quality of schools, ensure access to quality early care and education, provide better, more affordable health care and mental health care, restrict the availability and marketing of alcohol to youth, fight racism, decrease the availability of drugs and weapons, and improve social support for families with children.
BMSG has helped advocates move policymakers toward creating prevention-oriented legislation in many ways: We have monitored the media for news on violence and shown advocates how to respond to problematic coverage; we have taught advocates how to develop media strategies and pitch prevention-related stories to reporters; and we have developed tools and conducted workshops to train reporters and editors on how to include a data-driven, prevention-focused approach in violence coverage.
When tragedies like Sandy Hook occur, the media often explore the issue in great depth in the following days and weeks. But to effectively report on violence, what matters isn't just the coverage in the aftermath of a shooting, but all the coverage in between. That's the approach the NY Times editorial board is taking. Check out its comprehensive series on the issue.