Special thanks to Project Censored’s Summer 2022 intern Sam Peacock for helping with data collection and analysis.
Corporate news coverage of US gun violence skews heavily toward mass shootings. The establishment press almost never reports on community-level gun violence, defined by Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions as incidents involving “non-intimately related individuals in cities.” Although community gun violence reflects the deep-rooted inequities of systemic racism—including redlining, exclusionary zoning, and mass incarceration—mass shootings, which represent roughly one percent of US gun violence “soak up about 95 percent of the oxygen in terms of the national conversation on gun violence,” Michael Anestis of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University told the New York Times last year. This skewed coverage shapes the public’s understanding of American gun violence, undermining popular support for community programs that treat it as an urgent public health issue.
We wanted to understand how journalists typically reported on gun violence, in the wake of a mass shooting event or otherwise. Were there solutions discussed outside of gun legislation? Do the corporate media treat community-level gun violence with the same sense of urgency as they do mass violence? Is gun violence covered similarly abroad as it is in the United States?
David Riedman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, has observed a sharp disparity in the coverage between these two forms of gun violence. “If multiple students are shot in a suburban school, that’s very quickly national and international news,” he said. “Yet very similar incidents where it can be [an] isolated shooting or something that’s an ongoing dispute between students, a fight in the hallway, that escalates into a shooting — when that happens in low-income and minority communities, often there’s just one newspaper article or two newspaper articles about it.” We set out to see if this disparity exists, and, if so, what it looks like in day-to-day media coverage.
Our project collected data from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail in order to identify patterns in coverage and to determine how news coverage of gun violence varies cross-nationally. We also collected articles from local publications, such as Block Club Chicago, The City, and Rabble, to compare the quality of independent coverage to that of the establishment press. Our coding process primarily focused on the sources most trusted by journalists on the subject of gun violence. Additionally, we examined when and how sources, such as government officials, law enforcement, activists, and community members, discussed gun legislation. Within this coverage, we also recorded mentions of police accountability, how this factored into the coverage of mass or community gun violence, and who was quoted as an authoritative source in these instances.
Our data consisted of 224 news articles about mass shootings and community-level gun violence, published in the outlets cited above, between April 14, 2022, and June 24, 2022. We chose this timeline to capture coverage, and lack thereof, of gun violence in the weeks leading up to the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, which both occurred in May, as well as the conversation surrounding gun reform and related issues in the weeks that followed. Across these articles, we coded and analyzed 1,771 direct and indirect quotations relevant to our research questions.
What Grabs News Media’s Attention, Whom Journalists Trust
We conducted two data searches. The first aimed at capturing all articles related to mass shootings in our specified timeline. For comparison, the second search was designed to exclude coverage of mass violence and instead collect reporting on community-level gun violence. Editorials and opinions were eliminated as well as articles where the main focus was not gun violence, even if our search terms appeared in those articles.
Each article fell into one of nine thematic categories, which included direct reports about shooting events, direct reports about shooting suspects, gun legislation, law enforcement responses, activism, shooting threats, social/emotional impacts of a shooting event, public/gun safety, and politics. Quotations within these articles were also assigned a specific designation (social/emotional impact, activism, witness testimony, etc.), then coded by source types, such as law enforcement, government official, or civil liberties advocate. Additionally, we noted quotations that made any mention of gun legislation and/or police accountability.
Testing the Depths: Differences in Reporting on Mass Shootings and Community-Level Gun Violence
The shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, occurred within 10 days of each other. When we compared the New York Times’ coverage of these mass shootings with its reporting on community-level gun violence or police shootings within our timeline, we saw marked differences. The New York Times’ coverage of these mass shooting events was consistent and extensive. Its reporting included multiple perspectives and in-depth discussions of solutions to the scourge of mass shootings. When we looked at how the same newspaper reported on community-level gun violence, those elements disappeared. The Times relied on police reports to track community-level gun violence, and the coverage lacked viewpoint diversity and significant attention to solutions.
In May, the New York Times published a report of NYPD officers fatally shooting a man in the Bronx. Police officials were the only sources used for the story. A follow-up included an additional quote from a City Hall spokesperson on behalf of Mayor Eric Adams, saying Adams had visited the two officers at Jacobi Medical Center where they were treated for tinnitus.
To be sure, metropolitan daily papers have seen a steady decline in ad revenue for years, which was exacerbated at the start of the pandemic, which means newspapers today lack the reporters and resources to produce regular in-depth reporting on gun violence. But relaying wire stories about isolated events without addressing the systemic forces and political decisions that connect them undermines an existing fight for change.
Corporate Coverage Prioritizes Violence in Cities’ Centers and Under-Reports Community-Level Violence: A Chicago Case Study
In May 2022, a gunman fatally shot 16-year-old Seandall Holliday in downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park. Within days, Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a 10 p.m. curfew for the city’s minors, which the Chicago City Council later voted to make permanent, drawing harsh criticism from local officials, such as Alderman Roderick Sawyer, who insisted the policy was vague and ill-conceived, and would only serve to alienate Black and Brown youth.
That summer, sixty-five local advocacy groups, including Just a Harvest and Chicago Community Bond Fund, protested the curfew, urging Mayor Lightfoot to invest in non-carceral community-based programs. The Chicago Police Department’s budget for 2023 increased to $2 billion—up by roughly $340 million since 2019.
Prior to Holliday’s tragic death, the Chicago Tribune ran several pieces about Chicago’s “downtown violence.” However, these reports highlighted how gun violence in the city’s center might affect tourism or tax revenue and put additional pressure on CPD. That summer, the Chicago Tribune often framed gun violence in specific communities as a threat to downtown, instead of a concern in its own right. By contrast, the local nonprofit Chicago newspaper South Side Weekly argued in 2017 that Chicago daily papers often “pay lip service to the idea that the city’s gun violence crisis has systemic origins, but still treats this violence as an endless series of random acts.”
Following another series of shootings, Mayor Lightfoot emphasized safety in the city’s center, saying officials must “step up their efforts downtown.” When questioned about violence in other neighborhoods in Chicago, Lightfoot said, “They have lived with the lack of investment. They have lived with the lack of focus and attention on violence for way too long.”
In September 2020, Mayor Lightfoot had launched the “Our City, Our Safety” plan, which set aside roughly $411 million to pursue a “holistic approach” to reducing Chicago’s gun violence by investing in affordable housing, jobs, education, and other community resources. The plan specifically focused on fifteen Chicago neighborhoods with higher rates of violence, including West Pullman and North Lawndale, but by July 2021, as West Pullman experienced a rise in gun violence, it had seen none of Lightfoot’s promised funds.
In 2022, President of Civic Federation Laurence Msall told WBEZ that Lightfoot’s administration hadn’t made it easy to follow the money or gauge its effect on Chicago’s targeted communities.
“It raises questions about the level of coordination, the strategy [and] how effective the strategy is even able to be communicated,” Msall said.
In 2021, Lance Williams, an urban studies professor at Northeastern Illinois University, told the Sun-Times that the Lightfoot administration may have acted prematurely in rolling out such a lofty plan without the resources to “make it actionable.” Nearly a year after its introduction, much of the funding for “Our City, Our Safety” had been invested in existing outreach organizations while attention to jobs and education programs, which would be more expensive and more difficult to manage, went unfulfilled.
A subsequent analysis of police data revealed that Lightfoot’s curfew was largely enforced in areas where mostly Black and Brown youth reside, such as Chicago’s South and West sides. Moreover, the data indicated Lightfoot’s policy had little impact on crime.
While downtown shootings spiked in 2022, gun violence in downtown neighborhoods such as the Loop and River North still accounted for a small percentage of the city’s overall gun violence. Nevertheless, coverage of violence in these neighborhoods, which are predominantly white, accounted for 15 percent of the Chicago Tribune’s reporting in our quantitative analysis of forty-six stories published within our timeline. By contrast, shootings on Chicago’s South and West sides accounted for less than ten percent of the Tribune’s stories despite constituting a substantial proportion of the city’s gun violence.
In 2020, Black Americans were victims in 61 percent of all gun-related deaths, yet they represented 12.5 percent of the total US population. In 2021, 80 percent of gun-related homicide victims in Chicago were Black, despite Black people making up 28 percent of the city’s total population.
Chicago’s decades-long history of disinvestment in public infrastructure on the city’s South and West sides has resulted in a major crisis, which disproportionately affects Black and Brown people. The migration of businesses and middle-class residents out of central US cities beginning in the 1940s resulted in reduced revenue for city governments. Jobs in the manufacturing sector vanished, leading to concentrated poverty and homelessness in central city neighborhoods. Frustration and grief over discriminatory policies, and lack of resources, funding, and adequate leadership culminated in widespread violence across the nation’s major cities between 1963 and 1968, peaking shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
But instead of investing in public housing, schools, and other core community institutions, the federal government “responded with punitive social policies” that compounded the plight of central city residents.
Cross-National News Coverage of Gun Violence
We found 129 quotations in Canadian newspapers addressing gun legislation; of those, sixty-three pertained to Canadian gun violence while sixty-six were from articles written about US gun violence. Overall, Canadian coverage focused heavily on US gun culture. Days after the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the Toronto Star published an op-ed with the headline, “The whole world has an angry young man problem — but only America makes it easy for them to kill.” During the 2021 election, Canada’s Liberal Party repeatedly warned of rising “American-style gun violence” in Canada.
While political coverage in the United States emphasized the growing debate over Americans’ right to bear arms, Canadian coverage often focused on the philosophical differences between the two countries. Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control in Canada, said that a gun safety bill proposed in May would promote “Canadian values because there is no ‘right to own’ guns in this country.” Cukier believes “imported rhetoric about weaponry” from the US made the fight for gun control in Canada even more of an uphill battle.
After introducing new legislation for a handgun ban in May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters, “Other than using firearms for sport shooting and for hunting, there is no reason anyone in Canada should need guns in their everyday lives.” In stark comparison, after voting against a bill that would impose limits on the sale of guns following the Uvalde shooting, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan said, “The speaker started by saying this bill is about protecting our kids. That is important—it sure is. But this bill doesn’t do it. What this bill does is take away Second Amendment rights, God-given rights, protected by our Constitution, from law-abiding American citizens.”
Of the 1,771 quotations we coded for this research, 418 (nearly 24 percent) made some mention of gun legislation. Government officials accounted for 33 percent of these quotations, while fewer than 7 percent were from community members, including relatives of shooting victims.
After the shooting in Uvalde, the New York Times closely covered politicians’ gradual march toward stronger legislation. Many Republicans blamed individual shooters, while Democrats targeted flimsy existing gun laws.
Broadly, both of these perspectives mirror the way in which news media covers gun violence. After a mass shooting event, gun violence is typically treated as episodic and random. And when gun violence prevention is discussed, gun legislation is framed as the only way forward when in fact, although crucial, it is only one of the ways forward. Another is to treat gun violence as a public health crisis.
Gun Violence as a Public Health Issue
“There’s lots of systemic community-level gun violence that occurs in schools that don’t have the resources to prevent any gun from coming on campus,” according to David Riedman, who manages the K-12 School Shooting Database. “So, if you’re not a well-resourced school system, there’s going to be systemic gun violence that comes onto the campus, so there needs to be a different strategy there.”
In June 2022, a locally-focused nonprofit news site Block Club Chicago covered Alderman Roderick Sawyer’s push for a new city ordinance to help launch the Office of Neighborhood Safety, which would oversee and draft a “comprehensive, long-term plan to address violence.” Sawyer’s proposal overhauled the existing Community Safety Coordination Center that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the previous year and followed Lightfoot’s new “Connected Communities Ordinance,” a proposal to expand development near public transit. Sawyer called Lightfoot’s system a “flash in the pan” that lacked proper funding.
Along with a handful of city alderpeople, members of the local youth organization Good Kids Mad City introduced the Peace Book Ordinance, which would set aside two percent of the Chicago Police Department’s annual budget to fund a “youth-led violence reduction organization,” focused on “reducing intercommunal violence and overpolicing.”
In May 2022, Block Club Chicago had reported that Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods saw a 58 percent reduction in gun violence as a result of violence interruption programs. During the fall of 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker declared gun violence a public health emergency and pledged $50 million to violence interruption programs for the following year. This was a direct result of tireless work by community outreach organizations, such as Centers for New Horizons and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago.
According to Pritzker, the $50 million, from state and federal funding, would be used to support grants for community programs that tackle the systemic causes of gun violence, including “institutionalized racism in housing, health care, job opportunities and family support services.” This is part of a larger investment to combat gun violence in the state of Illinois; Pritzker’s administration plans to request an additional $200 million in its 2023 and 2024 budgets.
In US and Canadian papers combined, we also recorded 129 quotations that made some mention of police accountability. Of these, 37 percent were from articles related to the Uvalde shooting. Of the sixty-six quotes collected from Canadian papers about police accountability, fifty-five of them were about the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia. In our data, 29 percent of these statements were made by law enforcement, 18 percent by government officials, 14 percent by “expert” news sources (researchers or professors), and 12 percent by attorneys. Fewer than 10 percent were made by community members, including relatives of shooting victims, and community activists.
Overall, we found that news stories published in the aftermath of shootings regularly omitted the perspectives of those living in close proximity to gun violence and those with direct experience responding to it. Only 16 percent of the quotations in our database represented the perspectives of community members or activists. Across Canadian and US news media, these stories’ lack of diverse perspectives distorts the fight for gun reform, as though the only people working toward solutions are those with official, bureaucratic statuses.
Ongoing Gun Violence Conversation Requires New Perspectives
The lack of news coverage of community-level gun violence fosters a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of the problem. Community-based solutions and direct preventative action exist in cities all over the country, but it’s taken years for governmental support to catch up.
“There are certain incidents that speak to suburban demographics that get reported on extensively for years,” said Riedman. “And there are other incidents that get just brushed off as community issues in low-income and minority communities and there’s never any follow-up.”
Cure Violence Global originally launched as CeaseFire in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood in 2000 and was the first to enlist the help of violence interrupters, often local paraprofessional health workers, trained to identify and mediate conflict. Within its first year, the program led to a 67 percent reduction in interpersonal gun violence. The organization received positive acclaim when it was profiled in the 2011 documentary film, The Interrupters. More than two decades later, in 2022, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which allocated $250 million for community-based violence prevention initiatives, such as violence interrupting programs.
But when the New York Times and Washington Post covered the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the articles focused entirely on specific gun legislation in the bill, never mentioning funding for violence intervention programs geared toward combating community-level gun violence. This narrow focus perpetuates the misconception that gun legislation is only important to prevent mass shootings and neglects the critical importance of access to quality education, housing, healthcare, and other services in preventing violence. It also erases the community advocates and organizations doing the difficult, and often under-resourced work of creating systemic change.
Establishment news outlets repeatedly cite politicians and government officials as the most significant sources on gun violence, and this framing prevents readers from learning about those who are imagining solutions to gun violence outside of gun legislation. Covering mass shootings as though they’re the most frequent type of gun violence further marginalizes communities that experience gun violence on a near daily basis, and moreover, leaves them without access to proactive, lifesaving support.
Shealeigh Voitl is Project Censored’s Editorial Associate and a regular contributor to the Project’s annual yearbook series. She currently lives in the suburbs of Chicago.