Expert Commentary

Research highlights need for public health approach in news reporting of gun violence

The study, published in BMC Public Health, reveals an overwhelming reliance on law enforcement narratives, missing deeper insights into the root causes and potential solutions to gun violence.

the back of a man holding a camera on a tripod.
Photo by Korie Cull on Unsplash

For decades, researchers have urged journalists to avoid framing gun violence solely as a crime issue and provide a broader public health context. Yet, as evidenced by the findings of a recent study of local TV news in Philadelphia, the focus on the crime angle remains very much at the forefront of gun violence coverage.

The researchers’ call for change was further underscored on June 25, when the U.S. surgeon general declared firearm violence a public health crisis for the first time in a 40-page advisory, calling on the nation to take a public health approach to address gun violence, much like it has done before to address tobacco and car crashes.

In “Public health framing of firearm violence on local television news in Philadelphia, PA, USA: a quantitative content analysis,” published in BMC Public Health in May 2024, researchers analyzed 192 TV news clips aired on four local news stations between January and June 2021 and found that 84% contained at least one element that could be harmful to communities, audiences and gun violence survivors. Some of those elements are visuals of the crime scene, not following up on the story, naming the treating hospital and the relationship between the injured person and the shooter.

Meanwhile, public health elements such as root causes of gun violence, solutions and sources other than law enforcement officials were missing from most news clips.

“The main message is that the majority of reporting on firearm violence, at least in TV news, has many harmful content elements and we have to do better,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Jessica Beard, director of research at The Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital and an associate professor at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “The public does not have an accurate understanding of what gun violence is and the policy implications are huge.”

Beard was part of a panel on covering gun violence as a public health emergency at the Association of Health Care Journalists’ annual conference in New York City earlier this month. She also spoke with The Journalist’s Resource after the panel.

Previous studies have shown that when the news media covers community gun violence as a single incident in isolation, audiences are more likely to blame victims. This approach also reinforces racist stereotypes and suggests that policing is the most effective way to prevent violence, undermining public health measures that could curb gun violence, Beard and her co-authors of the BMC Public Health study write.

This type of coverage also has a negative effect on people who are injured in shootings, they point out.

Injured people say that graphic content, inaccuracies and mention of treating hospitals resulted in distress, harm to their reputation and threats to their personal safety, according to a 2023 study by the same research team, which included interviews with 26 adults who had recently sustained a gunshot wound. They said that news reports that neglected their personal perspectives left them feeling dehumanized and compounded their trauma.

“Some people were afraid to get discharged from the hospital,” Beard says.

More about the study and its findings

The researchers chose to study TV news because more people in the U.S. get their news from TV than other legacy sources such as radio and print, according to a 2023 survey by Pew Research Center. (That same survey found that more Americans get their news from digital devices than from TV, and there’s a need for research on firearm violence content in digital news, the authors note.)

They focus on Philadelphia for several reasons. The city is the birthplace of Eyewitness News, which launched in 1965, and Action News, which launched in 1970. The two newscasts pioneered reporting approaches that have been criticized for the way they are produced and for casting a negative light on Black communities, the authors write. A 2022 story by The Philadelphia Inquirer delves deep into this history.

Moreover, the epidemic of gun violence in Philadelphia reflects a trend across the country where shooting rates have increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionately affecting young people and Black people. A June report from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report finds that between January 2019 and September 2023, rates of emergency medical services encounters for gun-related injuries were highest among males, non-Hispanic Black people and people between 15 and 24 years old.

The study compares Philadelphia news clips based on two main characteristics: news clips that focused on a single incident in isolation, called episodic framing, and those with more of a public-health approach, exploring the broader social and structural context in which the violence occurs, called thematic framing.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly 80% of the stories used episodic framing.
  • In 21% of the clips, a law enforcement official was the main interview source.
  • In 50.5% of the clips where the journalists were the only news narrators, police were the predominant source of information on firearm violence.
  • More than 84% of the stories contained at least one harmful element, such as a visual of the crime scene, not following up on the story, the number of gunshot wounds, the name of the treating hospital and the relationship between the injured person and the shooter. About 7% of the clips included video or audio of the shooting.
  • The 192 news clips mentioned a total of 433 injured people.
  • More than 80% of the clips mentioned an injured person, although in 67%, the only information about injured people was age or gender.
  • None of the 192 news segments included a health or public health professional or an injured person as the main interview source.
  • Only 10% of the clips included discussions about public health solutions.
  • And only five stories (2.6%) used the word “prevent.” Another four stories (2.1%) offered resources related to firearm prevention.

The authors point out that the study findings may not be generalizable to all U.S. cities, to national TV news, or to print, radio, or social media content.

Also, it’s still not clear whether harmful reporting on community firearm violence increases rates of gun violence. The connection between the two is complex, Beard says, adding that she’s hoping to explore and study the topic in the future.

In their 2023 study, Beard and colleagues asked injured participants if they would be willing to speak with a journalist about their shooting incident and what would they tell the journalist.

One participant said, “You report the gun violence, but why not do a follow-up report […] for the victims, the survivors, the families that had to bury these people, the whole process? Just don’t do a guy got shot over there, a guy got shot over here. You’re making people more fearful. You’re more fearful, you’re going to arm yourself more.”

The authors underscore the study participant’s point: Reporting on firearm violence with limited information and no follow-up stories may perpetuate fear, which may contribute to increasing firearm use and, in turn, the increasing incidence of firearm violence.

The BMC Public Health study was funded by the Stoneleigh Foundation, Lehigh University Research Investment Programs, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Philadelphia Inquirer video explains how Eyewitness News and Action News brands of TV news, born in Philadelphia, harmed Black America.

Gun violence as a public health issue

Two days after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting, where 49 people were killed by a lone gunman in Orlando, The American Medical Association adopted a policy calling gun violence “a public health crisis,” which requires a comprehensive public health response.

In addition to death, gun violence can result in long-term physical, mental and financial burdens among injured individuals, studies show, including a 2023 study published in JAMA Network Open. It impacts communities, causing fear and economic decline. And compared with infectious diseases, it poses a larger burden on society in terms of potential years of life lost, according to a 2020 report by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence (now the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions).

Gun violence affects the health of entire communities, said Dr. Ruth Abaya, an attending physician in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia emergency department, during the panel on covering gun violence as a public health emergency at the Association of Health Care Journalists.

“We’re seeing young people who have crippling anxiety that is limiting their abilities to participate in daily life, they’re being medicated and even being hospitalized, and that’s directly related to this other public health crisis of gun violence,” said Abaya, who’s also the senior director of health systems and CVI — community violence intervention — integration at The Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. “And I’m also seeing young people with other unrelated chronic diseases like asthma that’s out of control because their caregiver was killed in a violent incident.”

Recommendations for journalists

The study’s findings are not surprising to Rick Brunson, a senior instructor of journalism at the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media.

Brunson, who worked as a reporter and editor in Central Florida for 20 years, including at a local TV station, mentions several reasons why many TV stations’ coverage of gun violence lacks a broader public health context.

Commercial news stations’ economic lifeblood depends on ratings, and as much as audiences may say they are put off by coverage of crime and violence, stations’ internal research shows that people watch crime news, he says.

Also, with the plethora of streaming options and multiple screens, viewers are distracted and TV stations are often vying for their attention, which results in newscasts packed with videos and short stories without space for context and explanation.

And there’s the broader, growing trend of news avoidance among audiences.

“When they watch the news, it just makes them feel despair and exhaustion, especially the focus on crime coverage and because there’s no context,” Brunson says. “They’re just presented with problem after problem after problem. Violence after violence.”

“The question for news directors to ask in the face of this where people are just avoiding the news and you’re seeing your audience erode more and more, year after year, is can the news business also be in the hope business?” Brunson says. “It’s going to take some serious consideration and the reversal of the kind of coverage that you put on your air.”

Even though there are widely accepted journalistic guidelines to protect victims and audiences in cases of suicide, mass shootings, sexual assault, abuse, and crime involving minors, no such guidelines crafted by journalists and public health practitioners exist for reporting on community firearm violence, Beard and her colleagues note in their study.

They say their research aims to lay the foundation for understanding harmful content in TV news clips and share several recommendations, including the practice of trauma-informed reporting.

Trauma-informed journalism recognizes the need for journalists to better understand how trauma can affect survivors and how to avoid reporting that could cause additional harm to vulnerable people and those who have experienced trauma. The practice also helps journalists to protect their own mental health.

When covering firearm violence, trauma-informed reporting would involve engaging with survivors using trauma-informed principles, including giving them control over the narrative of their injuries. It also minimizes harmful elements such as graphic visuals.

“This type of reporting could humanize firearm-injured people and build empathy in audiences, deconstructing the existing racialized news narratives around firearm violence in cities,” the authors write.

They also recommend:

  • Public health practitioners partner with firearm violence survivors to offer alternative perspectives to journalists reporting on firearm violence.
  • Journalists seek training in trauma-informed practices and solutions journalism.
  • Newsrooms adopt a public health approach to reporting on firearm violence, provide resources to audiences and use the public health framing.

To help journalists and newsrooms meet these recommendations, the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting and Frameworks Institute created a free gun violence reporting toolkit, which provides more information on trauma-informed reporting, the drivers of gun violence, and tips for more complete news coverage of gun violence.

Brunson advises reporters to seek out public health professionals as a source to help add context to their reporting and to read BMC Public Health study.

“People are always trying to tell us what to do,” Brunson says. “But we should take that as a compliment because the folks like the people who did this study acknowledge that they’re doing it because the media has influence, and journalists help shape and frame public debate and discussions and the problems that get looked at. Policymakers look at what journalists are doing.”

Additional research

Systematic disparities in reporting on community firearm violence on local television news in Philadelphia, PA, USA
Jessica H. Beard, et al. Preventive Medicine Reports, April 2024.

“Like I’m a nobody:” firearm-injured peoples’ perspectives on news media reporting about firearm violence
Jessica H. Beard, et al. Qualitative Research in Health, June 2023.

Firearm Injury — A Preventable Public Health Issue
Jay Patel, et al. Lancet Public Health, November 2022.

Making the News: Victim Characteristics Associated with Media Reporting on Firearm Injury
Elinore J Kaufman, et al. Preventive Medicine Reports, December 2020.


  • To help journalists with better reporting of gun violence, PCGVR has created a free gun violence reporting toolkit.
  • Firearm Violence: A Public Health Crisis in America” is the U.S. Surgeon General’s 2024 advisory, a first of its kind for gun violence.
  • The American Public Health Association’s Gun Violence page links to several useful resources.
  • The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC/Radio-Canada), and the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma recently launched a news industry toolkit on trauma-aware journalism.
  • This fact sheet by the American Public Health Association lists some of the recommended public health responses to gun violence.

About The Author