Study: News media distorts real picture of gun violence, rarely covers survivors of shootings

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — In recent years, the news seems saturated with reports about mass shootings. While it can seem like one occurs almost every week, researchers say only 22 percent of gun-related crimes are actually mass shootings. This was a surprising finding of a recent study led by doctors with the Pennsylvania School of Medicine who regularly treat gunshot victims. However, the team also discovered that media outlets tend to underreport and distort news about gun violence depending on the victim(s).

“This skews our focus toward things like active shooter drills in schools, and away from the kind of community investment that we need to prevent the forms of gun violence that are so much more common,” says study lead author Elinore Kaufman, MD, an assistant professor of Surgery in Traumatology in the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn, in a university release.

The public sees a twisted picture of gun violence

The doctors who performed this study say a disconnect between the types of patients they were treating and what they saw in the news related to gun violence motivated them to conduct this research.

“As a trauma surgeon, and someone who feels very connected to my patients, I take notice of gun violence coverage in the news–most often the lack thereof. I am particularly saddened when I find there was no media reporting on the shootings that have caused injury and death to my patients, which is most often the case,” Kaufman explains.

Kaufman and her colleagues studied police reports and information kept by the Gun Violence Archive to assess media reporting of gun violence across three U.S. cities in 2017. Those areas include Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Rochester, New York. They excluded injuries and deaths caused by self-inflicted shootings.

The results reveal that only about half of the 1,801 victims identified through these reports ended up on the news. Moreover, while 83 percent of gunshot victims were Black, the media only covered 49 percent of these shootings. Additionally, male gunshot victims were about 40 percent less likely to receive news coverage in comparison to women. Overall, researchers say the media underreports gun violence in cities where violence is more common.

Invisible survivors of gun violence get little support

One of the most concerning findings was that five in six news stories focused on shootings resulting in death, but only 16 percent of victims in shootings actually die. The doctors say these “invisible survivors” can’t receive support from communities that are unaware that they exist.

“A vast majority of the victims of gun violence survive, but I don’t think the public knows much about people whose lives have been disrupted in so many ways by their injuries, and who need all our support to recover,” Kaufman adds. “I like to think that more public awareness of the impact of gun violence on survivors would lead to broader support for the services and programs that they need.”

The authors suggest that these findings should be a major consideration for media organizations when they’re budget-planning, especially since many are downsizing. Their reporting has a direct impact on public support of public health policy changes that could provide gunshot survivors the critical support they need.

The team published their findings in the journal Preventive Medicine.