How Two Photojournalists Are Taking on the City's Gun Crisis

A new-media project, GunCrisis.org, uses old-school journalism tactics to study Philly's homicides.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Apr. 25, 2012

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Activists and advocates are taking a kitchen-sink approach: Anti-violence signs hang in the hallways of A.B. Day Elementary School in East Germantown, a typical Philly school in which three-quarters of the students are economically disadvantaged; grassroots organizations purchase billboards and hand out fliers; at Temple University Hospital on North Broad Street, which takes in about 500 gunshot victims a year, emergency room physicians try to make teenagers think twice about pulling the trigger by covering them with bullet-hole stickers as they lie on gurneys.

In January, after a night when three teens were shot and killed, Nutter called the shooter “a dog” and begged Philadelphians to stop being “idiots and assholes.” Two weeks later, he announced that the city set aside $500,000 for a special fund in order to dole out $20,000 rewards for tips leading to fatal-shooting arrests. While introducing the initiative at Strawberry Mansion High School, the district with the highest homicide rate, Nutter called it a “game-changer.”

No one has claimed a reward yet, according to the PPD.

Policy-based solutions seem simple: fewer guns would equal fewer deaths. But to a large extent, the city’s gun-control efforts are thwarted by Pennsylvania’s pre-emption laws, which make it illegal for cities and municipalities to enact gun-control laws stricter than the state’s.

The bottom line is that politicians and activists can talk gun policy all day and night, but it hasn’t helped solve much. Philadelphia is at Pennsylvania’s mercy: Gov. Corbett earns an A+ from the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association, and the NRA is only growing in power and influence.

Media coverage hasn’t helped, either. The well-intentioned editorials calling for gun-policy reform keep coming, to no avail. And studies show that the “if it bleeds, it leads” school of play-by-play daily reporting, when it provides no context and shoddy framing, can actually hurt communities by either desensitizing residents to violence or unnecessarily heightening fear.

“There was a time I thought it was helpful to just witness every gun death and now we know that too much of that can de-sensitize people,” says MacMillan. “So I’m trying to temper the situation. Here’s a gun death, [but] here’s a video on a solution.”

The idea for GunCrisis snapped into focus for MacMillan last fall, after attending a two-day conference for journalists hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, a project of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The workshop was specifically designed to guide Philadelphia journalists in how to report on youth violence more responsibly and more productively. Speakers at the conference included public-health experts who encouraged attending journalists to frame youth violence as a public-health epidemic.

After absorbing all of these progressive ideas, MacMillan began the seemingly endless research into urban gun violence and how a new-media project could both document the problem and help to solve it. But he needed to get back on the streets, so he called up Kaz.

“The most important thing [I’m getting] out of the field research was the normalization of this nightmare,” MacMillan says. “Nothing had changed in the four years since I stopped covering crime scenes, nor probably for decades before. It made me decide to rock the boat.”

The Boston-raised photojournalist spent more than a decade walking and driving around chasing photos for his “Street Level” column in the Daily News.

In 2004, he took leave from the DN to travel to Iraq, where he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of more than 200 war missions while embedded with U.S. military forces for the Associated Press. In 2006, he took another leave to study the effects of PTSD on photojournalists at the University of Michigan.

In MacMillan’s online portfolio, the juxtaposition of photos snapped in the city with those taken in the desert is practical, but also poignant: He sometimes notes that more people have been gunned down in Philadelphia since 9/11 than died in the crumbling towers.

After returning from Iraq, MacMillan grew increasingly interested in the intersection of journalism and trauma and new-media models. While he wasn’t sure of the exact direction of impactful, sustainable journalism, he was pretty sure it wasn’t happening at 400 N. Broad St. In 2007, he took an early buyout.

He spent the last few years studying the impact of violence on communities and exploring the impact media could have on reducing that violence. In 2007, he was an Ochberg fellow at the Dart Center. He taught classes in “Journalism and Psychological Trauma” at Temple University; “Multimedia and Social Media Journalism” at the University of Missouri; and “Peace and Conflict Journalism” at Swarthmore College, where is currently the journalist-in-residence at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Meanwhile, he built his own indie-journalism following online. Today, he has more than 79,000 Twitter followers and more than 43,000 subscribers on Facebook.

“It’s been a struggle, but I’ve built my own audience without them,” says MacMillan. “I miss my old job like crazy, but that doesn’t exist.”

These days, the Philadelphia Inquirer has only two full-time day reporters dedicated to cops and crime. General assignment reporters pick up night crime. The Daily News, which won a Pulitzer in Investigative Reporting for an expose of alleged corruption in the PPD’s Narcotics Unit in 2009, has historically had more staff dedicated to crime, but newsroom sources say that since the last editorial takeover, they have been advised to cover less crime—even as the city threatens to succumb to it.

One source, who spoke on condition on anonymity, said it has been stated “verbally, a number of times” that advertisers do not want their ads to appear alongside heavy crime coverage. “It was counterintuitive,” says the source. “Because that was always the pillar of the papers.”

That shift is plainly visible from the outside. A local blogger recently fumed when the DN cover featured a nude model to accompany a story on naked yoga the morning after two teenagers were gunned down with machine guns while joyriding on stolen ATVs.

Today, instead of a column like “Street Level,” the paper publishes “Street Gazing,” which features fashion and society photographs.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. teaguem2005 said... on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:29PM

“Wow. Once again Tara, you really hit the mark with this timely story. The suspect in my nephew's murder is now on the Most Wanted list but since I see no one has claimed any of the 20K offered in any of the City's murders I guess we shouldn't get our hopes up too high. It just sickens and saddens me that people still don't realize the value of a human life.”

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2. Amanda said... on Apr 25, 2012 at 09:39PM

“Outstanding story and very powerful. It's terrific to see two dedicated people trying something different.

One comment -- the reporter's contention that Philadelphia's gun violence problems would change substantially if Harrisburg allowed tighter gun control seems pretty implausible to me. Just over the bridge is Camden -- and just down the road is Wilmington. Why on earth would we assume that guns would not stay cheap and plentiful in NJ and DE even if PA passed a radical law?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 09:11AM

“If all of the guns used in last year's homicides were illegally owned, what sort of gun control law could possibly work?”

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4. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:10PM

“”

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5. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:12PM

“Murtha notes that 85 percent of the city's homicides last year were the
result of a gun, ALL OF WHICH WERE ILLEGALLY OWNED. (Emphasis added.) The
author then decries the fact that Philly cannot pass additional gun laws
of its own because of Pennsylvania's preemption laws. How, pray tell, can
more laws prevent behaviors that are ALREADY ILLEGAL. Oh, and let's not
forget Washington, DC. DC has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the
country. Yet, it is still the murder capital of the USA.

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6. nick said... on Apr 26, 2012 at 03:14PM

“Murtha notes that 85 percent of the city's homicides last year were the
result of a gun, ALL OF WHICH WERE ILLEGALLY OWNED. (Emphasis added.) The
author then decries the fact that Philly cannot pass additional gun laws
of its own because of Pennsylvania's preemption laws. How, pray tell, can
more laws prevent behaviors that are ALREADY ILLEGAL. Oh, and let's not
forget Washington, DC. DC has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the
country. Yet, it is still the murder capital of the USA.

Report Violation

7. Joel Benjamin said... on Apr 28, 2012 at 07:29AM

“There should be federal gun laws. The influence of the NRA should be resisted by dedicated politicians with integrity.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Apr 30, 2012 at 12:26AM

““There should be federal gun laws. The influence of the NRA should be resisted by dedicated politicians with integrity.”

????? Are you an ignoramus that actually thinks there are no federal gun laws?”

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