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Reporting on gun violence needs the help of credible messengers, says PCGVR’s Jim MacMillan

broken window in door reflecting widespread gun violence December 7, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
2020 has seen a marked rise in gun violence. Over 2,000 people have been shot in Philadelphia this year alone, and there have been 459 homicides, a 40% increase from last year, according to the city. Jim MacMillan thinks he can change this, but his methods are a little unconventional.

Last year, MacMillan was awarded a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship. Out of that fellowship sprang his current work, which is, in MacMillan’s words, “to explore the hypothesis that changing the practice of reporting on gun violence can actually prevent shootings.”

MacMillan knows a fair amount about reporting on gun violence. He was with thePhiladelphia Daily Newsfor 17 years during a time when, according to him, it was “the leading local news source in Philadelphia.” Working on the ground as a photojournalist, MacMillan often covered breaking news.

Jim MacMillan. (Courtesy)

“In Philadelphia, unfortunately, that means covering a lot of gun violence,” MacMillan said, “So I saw a lot of gun violence first hand, and the aftermath at the crime scenes, I covered a lot of memorials and met a lot of grieving families.” MacMillan estimates he’s been called to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 shootings.

And this is where the idea for his current project came from. After years of participating in the work of showing up in the middle of everything, covering a story, and leaving, MacMillan is interested in a different way of doing things. MacMillan started the Center for Gun Violence Reporting, which is based out of the Community College of Philadelphia. Part of this initiative is the Credible Messengers Reporting Project, and MacMillan thinks this the part that will give his program its edge.

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The idea for credible messengers came out of public health.

MacMillan explained that gun violence can be viewed as a disease, something that can spread from person to person. “We know that when people are exposed to violence, either as victims or perpetrators or witnesses, every exposure makes an individual more likely to perpetrate acts of violence in the future,” MacMillan said.

Taking a leaf out of public health’s book, one way to combat this is with trusted members of the community. In public health, credible messengers are exactly what they sound like, they are people that community members find trustworthy. Instead of an expert with no ties to the community delivering a message, credible messengers often are connected to or are from the affected group and can communicate concepts in an accessible way, with greater understanding of and sensitivity to the community.

Now, MacMillan wants to adapt that idea for gun violence reporting,

“By finding trusted messengers, you can collaborate more deeply, and engage more deeply,” he explained. “What I’m trying to do is extend that to journalism, in a way where people from the community with lived experience, report on stories while collaborating with people with more professional experience, to build relationships, and learn from each other,” MacMillan said.

But, MacMillan isn’t just expecting people to start reporting spontaneously. He acknowledges that journalism has changed dramatically, but he doesn’t necessarily see the project as a way to recruit more people to become traditional journalists. “I worry less [about] who is a journalist, and I worry more [about] who is conducting acts of journalism,” he said.

This is why community credible messengers will be paired with experienced journalists. Adapting the concept of credible messengers to journalism is just one way the idea has been used. Along with health care, credible messengers are also used in criminal justice reform as a way to connect with at-risk teenagers.

As to who is a credible messenger, the short answer is everyone.

The Center is currently recruiting applicants for the program, who will work with established journalists to report on gun violence in the city. MacMillan was hesitant to define who should apply to be a credible messenger, “I don’t want to set boundaries. I don’t want anybody to think they have to fit into one of those categories. Because across a broad spectrum, we’re all affected, some are just closer to the core than others,” he said.

MacMillan did mention people who have lost someone to gun violence, been a victim themselves, or perpetrated gun violence as more classical examples, due to their close, obvious connection to gun violence,  but he was very clear that the credible messengers could be anyone.

Part of MacMillan’s hypothesis is that this will lower gun violence. The center is working collaboratively with researchers on several studies, but it is still early days. It is too early to know if MacMillan and The Center will succeed in their goal.

It has been a rough start.

2020 has meant most of his work has been virtual and solitary. Add to that, 2020 has seen a spike in gun violence in the Philadelphia area. MacMillan explained that in his talks with researchers, no one is quite ready to say why it is happening, but that it certainly is happening. Despite the setbacks, the project is going ahead.

MacMillan said that in his wildest dreams, the project will do what it is designed to do, and there will be fewer instances of gun violence.

“I imagine this might be the last big thing I do in my career,” he said, “And my biggest wildest dream is that I get to step away from this thing in a few years … and then it’s sustained, and productive and continues growing … to continue this work for as long as it needs to be done.”

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People interested in being credible messengers or mentors of credible messengers are encouraged to apply at the Philadelphia Center for Gun Violence Reporting’s website. The application is currently open.

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