Jennifer Midberry research

A team of researchers, co-led by Jennifer Midberry, associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, found that media coverage harms, rather than helps individuals surviving the trauma of firearm violence. Midberry's team will now further their research with a $450,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. Stock photo.

Lehigh Professor to Study the Harms of Gun Violence Reporting

Former photojournalist Jennifer Midberry teams with trauma surgeon and epidemiologist to analyze how gun violence reporting can harm survivors and communities.

Too often media coverage harms, rather than helps, individuals surviving the trauma of firearm violence.

That was the finding of a team of researchers who interviewed 26 survivors of gun violence treated at Temple University Hospital in 2021.

The team, co-led by Jennifer Midberry, associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, will now further its research into the potential harms of news coverage of community firearm violence with the aid of a $450,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The grant will support a large, interdisciplinary project to gain expert consensus on the potential harms of such news coverage to survivors, co-victims, and society; quantify the extent of harms appearing in local Philadelphia television news coverage; and critically examine whether these harms disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

“This research advocates for news organizations to cover shootings as a public health issue, not just as a ‘crime’ issue,” said Midberry, who previously worked as a photojournalist for the Philadelphia Daily News, ABC News, AOL News and the Associated Press.

Jennifer Midberry

Jennifer Midberry.

The funded research will be pursued in three phases.

The first will build upon the prior study to better understand the potential harms to survivors, co-victims, communities, and society. Using the Delphi technique, researchers will solicit the perspectives of public health experts, those with lived experience and journalism scholars to gain consensus on what elements of news coverage would be considered harmful.

In the next phase, researchers will conduct a content analysis using a database of television news coverage they previously created. The analysis will reveal how many harmful elements from the Delphi study consensus appear in each news story and quantify the extent of harms, including which harms occurred, as well as patterns or trends.

The database includes every news story related to gun violence that aired during 6 a.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts on the four major Philadelphia television news stations over a one-year period.

The collection of these broadcasts was funded by a prior Lehigh Faculty Innovation Grant awarded to Midberry.

The third phase will entail creating a spatial analysis of coverage, “mapping” the extent to which harms disproportionately occur in stories about shootings in marginalized communities.

“We know a lot of this coverage is racialized,” Midberry said. “We hypothesize that the greatest number of harms will be about shooting incidents in neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color.”

This phase will benefit from the guidance of co-investigator Christopher Morrison, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.

The lead investigator on the grant is Jessica H. Beard, a trauma surgeon and researcher at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, with whom Midberry collaborated on the initial research project.

The research is part of an ongoing, interdisciplinary effort in the city of Philadelphia to critically examine news coverage of gun violence. Much of this work is coordinated by the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting (PCGVR), where Beard is director of research and Midberry is the journalism research advisor.

The Center works in a number of ways to inform journalistic practices, influence policies and programs, and advocate for a public health-focused approach to reduce gun violence.

This work includes the Credible Messenger Reporting project, supporting collaborative research, and providing professional development for journalists. Midberry has participated in several of the Center’s initiatives to help journalists cover gun violence in ways that are more solutions-focused and less extractive.

“There is a really encouraging number of allies within the journalism community lobbying for change within their organizations,” she said.

Gun violence remains a “front-and-center issue” in Philadelphia, Midberry said.

According to the PCGVR’s Shooting Victims Dashboard, gun violence has affected more than 15,000 victims in Philadelphia since 2015. The City of Philadelphia has labeled the issue a crisis and has devoted substantial financial resources to efforts to quell the surge of gun violence that has been experienced there as well as in many other major cities since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite local support, federal funding for research that examines gun violence as a public health issue has been virtually non-existent since the late 1990s.

“Research on gun violence has been hampered by legislation that limited federal funding for it,” Midberry said. “It’s encouraging that the federal government has invested in making media coverage of this topic something to be studied in regard to health disparities.”

It’s an area of interest for Midberry that has roots in her professional experience, which included covering numerous crime stories.

“Every project I do,” she said, “I do thinking of how these findings can have a positive impact on the journalism community.”

Story by Dan Armstrong

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

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