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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

Reporting on Gun Violence   

Slate partners with an anonymous Twitter user to chronicle the carnage in an innovative way. Fri., March 29, 2013.


By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

In the wake of the mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut last year, and the escalation of America's debate over gun control, reporters and interactive designers across the country are challenging themselves to shed light and perspective on a highly complex subject.

Recent months have seen a proliferation of interactive projects exploring gun violence and gun control. In December, the Washington Post and the Guardian published interactive, state-by-state reports on gun violence in America. In January, the New York Times mapped the geographic origins of 50,000 guns recovered and traced by the Chicago Police Department.

In December the Journal News of southeast New York kicked up a storm of controversy for publishing an online interactive map with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties. (The paper later replaced the interactive map with static screenshots.)

All of these projects leveraged traditional sources of database reporting: Public records, law enforcement files, public interest organizations and government data clearinghouses.

But the most innovative effort to illustrate America's gun violence problem used none of the usual methods. It began when journalists at Slate discovered that nobody seemed to have the answer to a shockingly basic question: How many people are killed by firearms each day?

"We were very surprised to find out that that information is really difficult to come by," Slate Senior Editor Dan Kois said in a December interview with NPR. "The FBI and the CDC keep that data, but they're several years behind. No one is keeping track of gun deaths on a day-to-day basis at all, and so we wanted to fill that hole."

The Slate team partnered with an anonymous Twitter user with the handle @GunDeaths, who had started tweeting reports of gun deaths across the U.S. after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012.

The result is "Gun Deaths in America Since Newtown," an interactive presentation on Slate.com that tracks daily reported gun deaths since the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, that left 28 dead. The information comes from news reports gathered by @GunDeaths and followers around the country. Deaths are represented by dots on an interactive map and also by rows of male and female figures; smaller figures are used for teenagers and children. The presentation can be filtered by location, date or victim gender or age. One of the main goals, said Kois in a February interview with Public Radio International, was to show that "every day, Newtown happens and then some." By mid-March, the project had counted more than 2,800 firearm deaths, an average of about 30 per day.

The Slate and @GunDeaths project represents a true collaboration between traditional reporters and citizen journalists. Local TV, newspaper and online journalists across the country contribute the original reporting that makes the project possible. @GunDeaths aggregates and curates those disparate pieces of reporting into an organized stream. And Slate lends programming and interactive design expertise as well as exposure to a broad audience which in turn raises awareness and participation in the project.

"By us creating this interactive with [@GunDeaths] and partnering with him, we expanded his reach substantially," said Kois in the December NPR interview. "Whereas before he had 200 to 300 people following him, now he has 3,000 or 4,000. He's collecting numbers much more reliably than he was before." (By mid-March, @GunDeaths had more than 18,000 followers.)

Another interesting aspect of the project is Slate's decision not to sacrifice the good for the perfect. While Slate and @GunDeaths strive to ensure the accuracy of the deaths they report by only accepting credible sources, Slate acknowledges that the information is "necessarily incomplete." There may be some death reports that are not caught by @GunDeaths or his followers but the greater problem is tracking suicides, which are estimated to make up close to 60 percent of gun deaths and typically go unreported by the media.

While imperfect, the data are better and much more current than any previously available source; Slate's gun death tally has been cited frequently with accompanying disclaimers by other news organizations trying to help citizens comprehend the real-time scope and pace of the crisis.

Slate isn't the only news organization making use of the @GunDeaths feed. In a project called "Long weekend of gun deaths," NBC News used @GunDeaths as a source for mapping, categorizing and summarizing each firearm death reported during the holiday weekend ending on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2013. @GunDeaths reported 107 deaths during those three days.

As traditional reporters, citizen journalists, social media and crowdsourcing continue to intersect and connect, we can look forward to more examples of reporting that approach familiar subjects in innovative ways, and surface stories that haven't been told before.