Journalists have incredible power to shape our perceptions of reality, risk, and safety, and with that power comes responsibility. Especially regarding how we report crime and the lives it affects. In this three-part series titled, Rethinking Crime Reporting, Prism’s Crime, Reform & Abolition reporter Tamar Sarai does a deep dive into how people and their communities are continually impacted by anti-Blackness in crime reporting and the media’s uncritical acceptance of the information provided by law enforcement. This series also covers the growing movement within newsrooms and among media advocates to cultivate an active awareness of how our coverage can further entrench racist narratives and provide the public with reporting rooted in context and humanity as much as factual accuracy. This is part two of the series, you can find the complete series here.

The New York City Police Department released its monthly crime statistics in November, which revealed a reduction in seven major crime categories–including gun violence. But the numbers failed to reflect the complexities of the shooting incidents that did occur and the hundreds of people touched by that very violence. A cursory scan of media coverage across the city also showed that reporting on these incidents mostly failed to include critical context for why the violence erupted. The lack of nuance in these approaches reflects an ongoing trend in crime reporting that treats Black and brown communities as a collection of statistics rather than people whose lives are impacted by crime, and by how crime is covered in the media. 

Crime reporting remains a newsroom staple, but far too many stories still follow the clickbait model of “if it bleeds, it leads.” What’s needed is reporting that provides information that would bolster public safety or examine the causes of violence and the lives directly impacted. Further, many mainstream reporters remain distanced from the communities they cover. In the absence of new journalistic practices and policies that challenge institutional norms, major outlets will continue to report on crime in dehumanizing ways that rob the public of knowing how to address issues like gun violence and better understand the communities most impacted by it.

New York Amsterdam News, a weekly Black-owned newspaper and one of the oldest Black-run papers in the U.S., is one media outlet that bridges the gaps in gun violence reporting, while also understanding its impact on the city. For instance, how were students at a nearby school impacted in the days after they witnessed a 22-year-old man in Harlem shot in broad daylight? What context could help us understand why a gunman in New York went on a shooting spree, ultimately taking two lives in December? 

In a front-page letter published last year, New York Amsterdam News publisher and editor-in-chief Elinor Tatum explained that after typical coverage of gun violence in predominantly Black and brown communities is churned out, we “rarely hear anything else” about the shooting.

“It is easy to write that six people were shot on a summer weekend but it is much harder to explain how the families of these victims have been shattered and their communities torn apart,” Tatum wrote.

While fleshing out the stories of those impacted by gun violence and the ripple effect these shootings have on surrounding communities has not been a standard in the news industry, some outlets are beginning to take this approach. These newsrooms and media initiatives are trying to shift the way crime and violence is reported by reimagining existing industry standards and practices, interrogating the overarching narratives that drive traditional crime coverage, and widening access to the field for reporters who can provide more honest and complex perspectives to these issues. The ultimate goal is to ground crime reporting in the humanity of impacted individuals and communities instead of focusing on flat data and statistics that rarely move readers to work toward change.

“It is simple to quote statistics as if each number was not an individual dream erased, a hope snuffed out at the end of a barrel of a gun,” Tatum wrote.

Questioning narratives about crime

In the months leading up to November’s midterm elections, stories about violent crime dominated political coverage and sponsored campaign ads. The media focus on certain highly publicized crimes, along with major cities’ increased investment in police, creates a fear factor that doesn’t align with actual data and fails to seek real solutions. According to 2021 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there has been no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate. In the past two decades, incidents in the seven “major felony” categories have also decreased across New York City. 

Yet, public perceptions about crime are distorted–in large part by the way crime reporting centers particularly heinous incidents and positions police and prosecutors as the purveyors of public safety. A Pew Research Center survey from last year found that 61% of registered voters saw violent crime as “very important” when casting their ballots, with older and Conservative Republican voters more likely to name it as a key voting issue.

With such profound political implications, newsrooms like New York Amsterdam News are thinking about their own role in the media ecosystem. Tatum’s letter not only outlined the pitfalls of current coverage but also highlighted how the outlet is experimenting with its own solution through the new three-year, $3 million initiative called Beyond the Barrel of the Gun. It is the largest scale investment made in gun violence reporting by a Black-owned media outlet.

I feel like in so much of the coverage that we see, gun violence is presented as intractable, that it’s just part of Black and brown communities, part of urban communities, and essentially that there’s nothing that can be done about it. We reject that idea.

Damaso reyes

Damaso Reyes, an investigative editor at the New York Amsterdam News, said the initiative seeks to frame gun violence as a public health crisis and highlight solutions by embedding reporters in organizations focused on gun violence prevention. Instead of briefly connecting with sources and phoning in a story, assignments will be months-long, allowing for deeper and more nuanced dives into the impact and causes of gun violence, as well as potential solutions. 

“I feel like in so much of the coverage that we see, gun violence is presented as intractable, that it’s just part of Black and brown communities, part of urban communities, and essentially that there’s nothing that can be done about it,” Reyes said in an interview with Prism. “We reject that idea.” 

Reyes describes the initiative’s approach as “preventative journalism”—coverage that examines how to thwart gun violence, rather than reporting that simply covers gun violence when it occurs. To execute this kind of reporting, there must be the belief that despite the deep-rooted nature of gun violence, solutions do exist and deserve to be explored.

Another key element is training journalists to widely interrogate common narratives around gun violence and crime–such as the assumption that shooting incidents increase every summer. Reyes said he wants coverage to delve deeper into questions about why gun violence happens in some areas more than others and why it spikes at certain times of the year, rather than passively accepting and repeating narratives that reinforce racist perceptions around crime.

“We really want to challenge all of our assumptions around gun violence,” said Reyes.

Assumptions about gun violence are further cemented by the gap between readers, journalists, and the subjects journalists report on. The distance between these stakeholders widens when newsrooms don’t directly engage with affected communities or use reporting to help shape solutions to the issues they cover. This feeds communities’ mistrust of journalists, fueling a self-perpetuating cycle in which crime reporting upholds racist assumptions about Black and brown communities and shortcircuits potential solutions. 

Reconfiguring these stakeholder relationships is essential to breaking this cycle. In addition to reshaping the way Amsterdam News approaches crime reporting, Beyond the Barrel of a Gun aims to bridge the gaps between audiences, reporters, and communities by incorporating events that take reporting beyond the page and into the public sphere. As part of the initiative, Amsterdam News intends to organize at least 12 virtual and in-person town halls and panels composed of community members, experts and researchers, and civic leaders to discuss specific issues around crime and gun violence, as well as potential solutions. 

“We’re trying to provide opportunities to bring different stakeholders together and actually talk to each other because I know that there are plenty of people in New York City impacted by gun violence who don’t agree with some of the statements the mayor or his public safety team make,” Reyes said. “Giving an opportunity for powerful and influential people to hear from the people who are living this is something that’s really important.”

Controlling your own story

While initiatives like Beyond the Barrel of the Gun are exploring new ways for journalists to nurture relationships with communities touched by gun violence and the people crafting solutions to address it, others are focused on innovative ways to collapse the barriers between these groups entirely, such as providing directly impacted people with journalism training and support. These initiatives aim to support those closest to the issue to not just share how newsrooms should cover crime, but put their ideas into action as reporters.

In a 2019 WHYY News essay Derrick Cain, the writer and director of community engagement at the journalism organization Resolve Philly, wrote about his unexpected career journey. Cain grew up in a stable, loving family and went on to get married and build his own family. But when finances drew thin and banks repeatedly denied Cain the loans he needed to get his real estate business off the ground, he turned to selling drugs. In 2005, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison under mandatory minimum laws

While inside, Cain was featured in a Philadelphia Daily News story about the impact of mandatory minimums, stirring a series of events that would become an inflection point in Cain’s life. The following week, Cain read a comment to the Daily News story from reader Rich Kraus. In it, Kraus called Cain a “bad example” and wrote that “sympathy is for the people who lost a loved one to drugs.”

The brief but charged comment served as Cain’s introduction to the narratives that prevail about people entangled in the criminal legal system. Upon his release, Cain began mentoring and speaking out about his story.  

“That piece written about me about my time inside motivated me to want to come out and tell my story, but tell it through my lens and not through the lens of a journalist who most of the time doesn’t have the experience or background and understanding of that situation,” ” Cain said in an interview with Prism.

Through that early work, Cain was introduced to the Media Justice Fellowship run by Reentry Think Tank, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit committed to providing resources to formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The fellowship’s mission was to uplift and recognize directly impacted folks as experts primed to change the way reporters cover the criminal legal system, and to amplify the positive impacts that media coverage can play in shaping policy and public opinion. 

Fellows in the program were all formerly incarcerated individuals with varying levels of journalism experience and different reentry stories—some had been home for years and others had just returned. The expertise and experiences of these fellows were supplemented by intensive training around media literacy, journalism ethics, storytelling craft, pitch development, and interviewing. Current media professionals served as mentors and guideposts for fellows as they honed their ideas, pitched their pieces, and reported their stories. 

Cain’s fellowship project focused on formerly incarcerated people starting businesses. He wanted to highlight how they were working to make a living for themselves and to support and improve their communities.

“Those stories are so much more profound, solution-oriented, and useful in the real world,” said Mark Strandquist, Reentry Think Tank’s co-director. “So there was a lot of looking at things like Central Park Five and these historic moments where media narratives created really violent and destructive moments, as well as really amazing models of alternatives.” 

The biggest part of this transformation is dealing more directly with people who have experienced being incarcerated, whether it’s actually having them on their team, as far as in journalism, or actually going out there and before you’re writing the piece, just having a conversation about their experience, and then writing.

Derrick Cain

The fellowship featured three main components, beginning with media training workshops where members discussed the negative ways that the media can shape our lives and the positive impacts that can be made when newsrooms center underrepresented voices. These discussions were followed by sessions on conducting interviews, understanding bias, research methods, and how to use different forms of media and various writing styles to suit a writer’s ultimate goal. From there, fellows developed their own stories that focused on barriers to reentry and presented solutions to these systemic issues. 

“There was that internal work we were doing and then having the fellows working with these mentors,” said Courtney Bowles, Reentry Think Tank’s co-director. “That culminated at an event where all the fellows had an opportunity to pitch their stories to different editors at mainstream media outlets from across the city.” 

In his essay for WHYY, Cain writes that he has carried a laminated copy of Kraus’ comment in his wallet as a reminder of how he was viewed. Kraus’ false view of him sits in stark contrast to his present-day reality as director of community engagement at Resolve Philly—a position that the fellowship helped make possible and which his own lived experience affords him the expertise to do well.

“The lived experience, to be honest, is the best teacher,” said Cain. “Until you experience it you can’t really say that you understand or share that same view, because you don’t know. So when you bring in insight from someone who has lived experience it helps to craft a better and more accurate story. I’m very, very rare–there’s not many of me that have a criminal record and are doing this, but working with [other journalists] and them having a better understanding because of some of my insights is helping them craft better stories. The biggest part of this transformation is dealing more directly with people who have experienced being incarcerated, whether it’s actually having them on their team, as far as in journalism, or actually going out there and before you’re writing the piece, just having a conversation about their experience, and then writing.”

A call to action for newsrooms

Increasing pressure for legacy media outlets to rethink their approach to crime reporting seems to be creating more fertile ground for initiatives like Beyond the Barrel of a Gun. Meanwhile, projects like the Media Justice Fellowship are emerging independently within nonprofits and forming strategic partnerships with mainstream publications. Advocates are hopeful that these changes may lead to a larger ripple effect across the industry.

For example, while the Media Justice Fellowship is not currently operating, it has had a lasting impact on the lives of past fellows and on Philadelphia’s media landscape. Other Philadelphia-based initiatives aimed at rethinking the city’s crime beat—such as Free Press’ Shift the Narrative Project—have cited the fellowship as inspiration for their work. 

According to Strandquist and Bowles, fellows have since gone on to publish first-person pieces for outlets like the Marshall Project and have launched careers as writers and journalists. However, the time spent together in the fellowship remains a less tangible but perhaps most indelible legacy of the project. Strandquist says that by developing their article pitches and story ideas, the fellows were in effect sharing themselves, their experiences, and their resources with each other. It made the experience one in which the fellows were collectively supporting each other through the process, rather than just engaging in individual reflection.

“It was just so powerful to see how the process of creating these pieces became this really incredible mutual support system for each other,” Strandquist said.  

When fellows were working in the final leg of their fellowship to get their pieces published, they were also engaging with newsrooms and media professionals about the importance of their roles as storytellers and the ways their reporting could affect the industry.

“Not only is this story going to be told, but they’re the best journalists to tell it,” Strandquist said. “This is about training a new group of incredible journalists who could do so much powerful work, and it’s about these media outlets and journalists and editorial boards hearing the ways in which they need to also transform their work.” 

I think now more than ever is the time where media outlets should be doing the work to lift up the voices of folks impacted by the system, if not straight up hire them to help legacy newsrooms.

Mark Strandquist

Even well-intentioned journalists from outlets looking to improve their crime coverage can still employ standards and practices that are harmful to directly impacted communities or that fail to interrogate organizations and authorities within the criminal legal system. Opportunities like Reentry Think Tank’s fellowship underscore the fact that while you can teach traditional journalism skills, you can’t confer the knowledge that comes from personal experience and which undergirds some of the best, most nuanced stories. Uplifting directly impacted journalists is not simply an act of altruism but a strategic pivot that can yield more honest reporting.

“We are seeing a resurgence of these racist tough-on-crime narratives,” said Strandquist. “So I think now more than ever is the time where media outlets should be doing the work to lift up the voices of folks impacted by the system, if not straight up hire them to help legacy newsrooms.”

As director of community engagement at Resolve Philly, Cain serves as a “navigator” going out into the community, connecting with people not often represented or misrepresented in the media and highlighting their experiences. Cain also helps bridge the gap between journalists and communities, providing community members with a behind-the-scenes understanding of the field and how stories come together. 

He also helps journalists understand the danger of parachute journalism– flying down the moment a story breaks without having fostered relationships with community members beforehand. Cain says that journalists working in the crime beat should also be sure to ask formerly incarcerated people how they’d like to be referred to, as opposed to defaulting to terms like “ex-con” or “felon.” Coverage of crimes should also not include the criminal history of a victim if it’s not pertinent to the story, and newsrooms should consider the impact of only covering crime in certain neighborhoods while ignoring other facets of that community’s life.

“I think oftentimes, especially as returning citizens when the community you’re from is only talked about most of the time through the crimes that happened in that community, you become that person,” said Cain. “Even though you didn’t do it [because] you’re a returning citizen they look at you as a part of the problem. Whether you’re right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s how they look at you.”

In the next leg of his work, Cain hopes to extend his role as a navigator to include being in conversation with higher-ups–editors and other newsroom leaders who are often most resistant to changing the crime beat or adopting new practices around covering the legal system.

“Yes, we’re chipping away at it but there’s still a whole lot more to do,” Cain said. 

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.