This new tool can help reporters — and everyone else — understand and solve Philly’s gun violence crisis

There’s a new way for every Philadelphian to follow the dramatic toll gun violence takes on our city.

An online dashboard tracks all Philly shooting victims since 2015, and lets users easily view by age or race. It’s a tool that takes the raw, open data provided by the city and makes it much easier to understand.

More than 1,200 people have been shot in Philadelphia this year so far, and it’s not uncommon to see a weekend victim count in the double digits. But often the number of victims reported in the news varies significantly from channel to channel. Can present a clearer picture of the crisis spur more — or really, more effective — action to solve it? Jim MacMillan thinks so.

“I’m looking at four local news organizations all reporting different weekend shooting victim totals from Philadelphia, ranging from 24 to 28 but using various time frames,” MacMillan tweeted recently. Founder of the Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting (IBGVR) he’s one of the new dashboard’s creators. “I have seen reports of 31 victims between early Friday evening and midnight last night.”

It was this discrepancy that led MacMillan and several partners to create this app, which was revealed during a gun violence reporting summit on Friday.

Hosted by the IBGVR at WHYY, the 200-plus person summit included a full day of panels and demonstrations for and by journalists, health experts, academics and community leaders about how to spread information and report effectively on the shooting epidemic that continues to propagate across the U.S.

The ultimate mission of the event was simple: to save lives with better gun violence journalism. Here are some of the key takeaways.

Jim MacMillan, director of the Initiative for Better Gun Violence Reporting

Emma Lee / WHYY

The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and a New Orleans-based data analytics firm dedicated to public good collaborated with MacMillan on this new, interactive dashboard.

Users can adjust the results using different categories like whether a shooting was fatal or non-fatal, whether a police officer was involved in the shooting, which police district the shooting was in, and other criteria. The graphs can also be embedded.

What the dashboard can’t do yet is provide as-it-happens data on Philadelphia shooting victims. MacMillan and PABJ president Manuel Smith are working with local government to try to improve that, they said.

“The one line, two line reporting on gun violence is harmful and it has to stop.”

That’s from Jessica Beard, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital. These reports are often the only types broadcast news manages to present after a shooting.

Instead, panelists emphasized the importance of making connections with a community. Go to neighborhoods even when you aren’t reporting for a story to get to know people and institutions, they urged.

“The community voices are the hardest voices to get but they’re the most necessary,” said Miami public radio reporter Nadege Green.

Abené Clayton (second from left), reporter for The Guardian, talks about better ways to cover gun violence. She is joined by journalists (from left) Akoto Ofori-Atta, managing editor of The Trace, Nadege Green of Miami public radio, and Jonathan Bullington of the Louisville Courier Journal.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Traditional news media will regurgitate initial police reports about a shooting, panelists said.

These reports are often preliminary, incomplete and criminalizing. Journalists should instead wait for more facts to emerge before reporting, and pay close attention to using words like “suspect” and “gang-related,” that are reported by the police.

WHYY Vice President for News and Civic Dialogue Sandra Clark speaks to journalists attending the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit

Emma Lee / WHYY

Speaking of language, what reporters say matters.

That was a main takeaway from Friday’s summit. From using gun violence victims’ names to staying away from racist dog whistle words like “urban” gun violence, to correctly identifying an “assault style weapon,” reporters would do well to be much more intentional about their words, panelists said.

Jonathan Bullington pointed out the word “senseless” which is often used to describe shootings. “Do some shootings make sense and others don’t?” he asked.

“We already know how to report on gun violence because when we report on mass shootings, it’s always from a humanistic perspective,” said Green, the Miami reporter. “If we were talking about a mass shooting how would we talk about this?”

Raynard Washington, chief epidemiologist for the City of Philadelphia, speaks at the Better Gun Violence Reporting Summit. Other panelists are (from left) Jessica Beard, assistant professor of surgery at Temple University, Sara F. Jacoby a former trauma nurse and assistant professor of nursing at University of Pennsylvania, Elinore J. Kaufman surgical critical care and trauma surgery fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and Caterina Roman, associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University.

Kriston Jae Bethel

It’s standard practice to include the number for a suicide prevention hotline at the end of articles or broadcasts about suicide. For articles about sexual assault, reporters and editors often include a similar note.

This type of compassionate addendum rarely, if ever, is seen on gun violence reporting — and that should change, conference participants urged.

Michelle Kerr Spry is a member of the anti-violence organization Mothers in Charge who lost her son to gun violence in Northeast Philadelphia. She said it took her six months to find and connect with a victims’ support group.

“Give me something to live,” Kerr Spry implored reporters on Friday. “Help us with resources. Highlight the good.”