Data visualization and America’s gun violence epidemic

Mass shootings in the United States are increasing in frequency. The San Bernardino shooting represented the 355th such shooting in the year 2015.  More than 12,000 people, including more than 3,000 children and teens, have been killed in the U.S. by guns in the year 2015 alone.

In reporting on the events in San Bernardino, the BBC quipped, “Just another day in the United States of America. Another day of gunfire, panic and fear.”

Sadly, the BBC is absolutely right.

The United States’ gun violence homicide rate far exceeds that of other developed nations. In the U.S. there is nearly one privately-owned gun for almost every American citizen. Those U.S. states with the highest gun ownership rates have higher rates of gun deaths than states with lower rates of gun ownership. In the U.S. more Americans have died as a result of gun violence since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.

Following the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg in October, President Barack Obama spoke from the White House referring to the gross routinization of these events, from his response to the national conversation to the journalistic reporting.

While the media should report on gun violence, the U.S. media coverage of mass shootings has indeed become routine. The formulaic nature of the reporting makes it easier to ignore and easier to forget.

As Polly Mosendz, a reporter for Newsweek, explains it, “Reporting is routine. It’s so routine that we have an entire assembly line in place, complete with prewritten and predictable stories.” Lamenting the necessity, she adds, “Mass death is prewritten in America.”

According to Brooke Baldwin, a CNN anchor, “I’m getting sick of speaking the words ‘active shooter situation.’ I’ve been covering too many of them… I’ve become far too familiar with this. It’s sadly become a routine.”

In addition, there is a body of growing evidence indicating a connection between media coverage and mass gun violence. A recent research study found that 30 percent of mass killings were potentially inspired by previous mass killings, with sensational and detailed media coverage being a possible factor for the copycat acts.

As an example of media sensationalism of gun violence, following the shooting of two journalists on live TV, the New York Daily News featured on its front page three chilling and horrific images from the shooter’s perspective and taken with the shooter’s own camera equipment. In addition to being grossly insensitive, images such as this can “provide the notoriety mass killers crave and can even be a jolt of inspiration for the next shooter.

The responsibility is upon us, both the profession and in the academy, to re-consider how we cover the complexity of the issue of gun violence.

Data visualizations that are rooted in facts, effectively presented through the correct data tools and technologies, and make a connection with the audience can perhaps be one such solution to helping us ethically and responsibly craft journalistic stories of gun violence. I have created an online collection of data visualizations that reflect America’s gun violence epidemic. Below I discuss a few benefits of data visualizations in reporting gun violence and share a few examples.

Visuals show and don’t just tell. Certainly, it is informative to read that the U.S. has a higher gun homicide rate than other developed nations. But it is more informative to be able to visually see that data. The visual comparison of data shows the staggering difference.

gun homicides per capita

Data visuals can easily capture and convey massive amounts of complex information. USA Today has created an interactive data experience on mass shootings. Audiences can engage with multiple data sets to experience the story of mass gun violence.  In a digital environment such as this, audiences can engage and interact and thereby immerse themselves in the information experience.

It must also be said that data visuals must present the facts (and not an agenda) and ultimately shed light (information) on the story. But that does not mean that data visualization should cease to make an emotional connection with audiences. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Data visualizations can and should connect with audiences in the same way that words and photos connect with audiences. As I discuss in a previous post, truly engaging data visualization can bring audiences to their knees.

Only the most stoic among us could hold back a tear as you endlessly scroll through this loss of life, especially when you gaze upon the tinniest of pictorial representations with the realization that it represents the death of someone’s child. I urge you to take the time to explore this entire data visualization and the static version below.





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