National Press Club

At NPC event, journalists covering gun violence deplore failure to address the issue

July 24, 2019 | By Louise D. Walsh |

On a day that the Washington Post reported that 11 people were shot, eight fatally, over five days in the District of Columbia, prize-winning Post reporters Wesley Lowery and John Woodrow Cox stressed to a National Press Club audience the tragedy of the nation’s failure to address the trauma of gun violence in our society.

“Every hour of the day, a child is shot in this country,” said Cox at the July 23 event, billed as a “conversation “on media coverage of gun violence. ”We haven’t studied gun violence in two decades,” he said – not since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost funding to study gun-related homicides.

Although we know how many people saw “Lion King,” “we don’t know how many people are shot by police,” pointed out Lowery.

Both reporters said that too much media coverage focuses on the shooter and the victims, and not on the survivors. More than four million kids reportedly have gone through a school lockdown, Cox said, but he believes the true figure is much higher, even double.

Lowery described links among four “distinct and concurrent crises” of gun violence: Urban gun violence, domestic gun violence, gun suicides and gun mass shootings. The typology, he said, comes from Harvard scholar Thomas Abt, who wrote “Bleeding Out,” and could lead to new approaches for media coverage. Lowery led the Post’s homicide report last year, “Murder With Impunity,” that reported where killings go unsolved.

“Out of 54,868 homicides in 55 cities in the past decade, 50 percent did not result in arrests,” Lowery said. One positive outcome, he said, was that police departments that supplied the data were eager to read the Post’s analysis; the departments then contacted other police departments to learn how they succeeded.

The problem, Lowery said, is when victims of shootings or their families see no arrests, they mistrust the police: “One of the chief promises government makes is to keep you safe.”

Homicide detectives with too many cases can’t close them, Cox and Lowery noted. They said that cities routinely give the detectives eight to nine cases per year, although studies show that’s too many. In contrast, they said, in London police send 100 detectives to a murder scene; cases get solved.

The reporters agreed that background checks can save lives. “and laws requiring guns be locked up would save thousands” of them, Cox said.

On leave to write a book on the impact of gun violence on children, Cox will tell the stories “through children’s eyes. Rarely do you hear the child’s voice. It changed my life,“ he said.

Lowery related his his gripping story of one child, a kindergartner at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, who could not shed his terror of school Nothing helped, the mother told Lowery, then with the Los Angeles Times -- not multiple meetings with the Sandy Hook Elementary School principal or its psychologist.

Nothing helped until two first grade girls, the child’s neighbors, took his hand and asked him to sit with them on the school bus: “School is fun,” they told the boy, “there’s nothing to fear.”

But the first graders who protected the boy that school year never came home on Dec. 14, 2012. They were among those shot dead with the principal and psychologist who tried to keep him safe. Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones would call the boy’s mother an actor and her son, an invention. The boy happened to stay home the day 26 people were massacred at his school.

What happened made Lowery question how stories of gun violence are told and their unintended consequences.

Lowery cited history as hope in ending gun violence. Social problems once considered too big to solve, got solved, he said. He also mentioning slavery, and pointed out that even commercial flying, at its beginning, featured regular hijackings. Holding the tobacco industry accountable seemed hopeless, Lowery said.

“Are we daring to dream big enough,” he asked, “to imagine the world we want to live in?”