Covering Youth Violence, a guide for journalists—Informes sobre la violencia juvenil

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz



This is a guide for your coverage of youth violence. It will walk you through reporting strategies, offer examples of reporting, and ask you to consider how you can do your best for an issue that touches so many lives today.

Why do we need a guide?

Because the work you do, shapes the world, as we know it and because we don’t always think through the impact of our reporting.  There’s a price to pay for that.

When we focus only on the victims in our daily stories, we may create compelling stories. But we also may re-enforce stereotypes. We can give the impression that crime somehow falls from the skies in only certain neighborhoods and every youngster in these neighborhoods is part of the problem.

When we ignore the stories of those fighting to improve their neighborhoods, we re-enforce hopelessness and a notion that it doesn’t pay to speak out and stand up for your neighborhood.

When we write about crimes only, we ignore the context for them and more importantly, what can be done.

This is an effort that has grown out of work by journalists and community groups in Chicago where youth violence is a stain that is not easily erased. But there are many working to do so.

So, please share your thoughts, suggestions, and stories and make this your guide., office, 312 369 7782; cell, 773 595 8667

Covering the story:

Focus your reporting

  1.  Examine crime statistics.

Narrow the numbers to tell stories about communities, about kinds of youth, about kinds of weapons.

2. Cover violence as a public health issue.

  • What social-political-community forces are most important?
  • Schools, housing, jobs, immigration-related issues?
  • Availability of guns? Role of gangs and neighborhoods, police, courts
  • What changes in neighborhoods are taking place.

3      Police, Courts, Juvenile Detention Centers and Prisons

  • What changes in how they treat youths and crime?
  • How do they operate? What do experts say?
  • How well are they funded and staffed?
  • What are the alternatives for detention and prison. What is the recidivism rate for young offenders?
  • Profile the youths in detention and being released from prison
  • How well do the police do in solving crimes? What is the clearance rate?  Here’s a story that quickly shows the importance of the clearance rate in dealing with homicides:
  • What are good measures for crime? Homicides tell us about one part of the violence scenario. What about all violent crimes? What about shootings? What about drug deaths, guns seized, hospital admissions as a result of violent crimes?
  • Can you track and compare crimes and crime rates across various parts of the city?

Creating your stories….

  1. Narrow your reporting to describe individuals and scenes, but tell us about the larger picture
  2. Tell complex stories with one or two individuals in these systems
  3. Take your readers, audience, listeners to witness and see how police, courts, juvenile detention facilities operate. Stay on one angle and follow-up frequently.
  1.  Create a narrative that makes the story personal and human.
  • Tell the story of one event through different eyes – the emergency room physician, the high school principal, the probation officer, the county coroner, the funeral home director, the family, friends, relatives
  •  Describe the life on a street – at a school – a location where youth crime occurred
  • Follow one person through the system
  • Describe the trauma created for the victims and those caught up in the crime. Explain the psychological and physical impact of violence and fear and of repeated violence.
  • Use google maps and ushahidi  (
  •  or see click fix digital tools) to chart crime-related issues to visualize the impact of the issue on a community.
  • Here’s a way, using storify, to use social media and data and other online sources to tell a community story:
  • Tell us about the community and what problems youths face: poverty, unemployment, collapse of public housing, school dropout rates, access to public facilities, access to social work agencies.
  1.  Don’t nurture despair or focus solely on overwhelming situations and leave your community/story without offering solutions. Consider the complexity you are reporting.
  • Who are the heroes in the hood?
  • What programs seem to work?
  • Who is spending money on youth violence and what has been its impact?
  • What are other communities, cities, states and the federal government doing?
  • Can you include NGOs and community groups in writing blogs or podcasts?
  • How do organizations cooperate? What is their funding? What do they say about their success, failures, expectations?
  • Consider how you can use youth media, community or crowd sourcing, bloggers and blog aggregators. How can you map your reporting? What audio-visual presence are you creating?   
2. Don’t forget the larger picture
Putting a human face is what we journalists prefer. It creates drama and complexities and gives a life to our reporting. But there’s a danger in focusing only on individuals without stepping back to tell our audiences about why this story is taking place. By focusing only on individuals, we nurture the sense of personal failure and of the victims doing wrong again. There are reasons why crime persists in poor and isolated communities. They are complex and they call upon us to do our best to explain these forces.
Here’s a report which looks at the impact of reporting on violence and the impact of the styles and strategies that journalist use to tell these stories:

Examples of stories and reporting strategies

On analyzing the larger issue:

Alex Kotlowitz’ story on CeaseFire, 2008, New York Times, notice how he goes back forth from scenes to individuals to bigger questions and how he doesn’t answer the major question.


Dealing with victims of violence and telling their stories

From the Dart Center at Columbia University, +1 (212) 854 8056

Covering Children and Trauma

Interviewing Children from the Dart Center


When Crime is Just the Beginning of the Story, from Nieman Reports

Trauma lingers. Return to those who have endured violence to explain the impact on their lives. Chart the emotional toll felt by a family, a street, a school, a neighborhood. Notice how this video and photos that won the Pulitzer Prize did this:,0,6290501.htmlstory

Here’s an interview with a clinical expert on the impact of violence from a Chicago blogger:

On Gangs and strategies to stop violence

from reporter Julie Reynold, on CeaseFire’s impact nationally

An evaluation of CeaseFire

A reporting and documentary effort on the gangs of Central California

See the Interrupters, the movie on CeaseFire. What reporting tools, suggestions, insights can you glean from this movie?


How do gangs operate? What are their territories? What is the impact of the gang, drug business, trafficking, gun sales, robberies? Is there a different between black and Latino gangs? Can you draw a map of gang territories?

Here’s a story that lays out the dimensions of the gangs sprawl in Chicago. What more do you need to report on?

Here’s a good example – by a college journalist – of telling the story of a young Latino gang member. Notice the attention given to what neighborhoods he can visit and the forces that pull at him.

FINAL – Pilsen Project – Gang Profile – Ade Emmanuel – 1428

For over five years, Newsday reporter Sarah Garland produced stories exploring Latino gangs in the suburbs or Long Island. She came to the conclusion that contradicted to federal officials’ description of their levels of brutality and sophistication. Her conclusion: the gangs were not transnational operations but largely a local phenomenon carried out by youths who had little contact in their home countries with such gangs. She linked the youths’ problems, she wrote to the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in an explanation about her reporting, to “residential segregation and educational inequality, violence towards Latinos and a criminal system that elevates punishment over rehabilitation and prevention.”

Here is how the IRE described her reporting

Journalist Sarah Garland investigates how two of the most dangerous Central American gangs have made their way into the suburbs of Long Island. Garland also tells the story of several young people whose lives have been affected by gangs or gang violence. Her five-year investigation involves conversations with police, gang members and school officials. That information reveals a different opinion than that of the Department of Homeland Security, who believes the gangs to be a problem on the level of Al Qaeda.

(you need to be a member to access this)

Here are examples of videos and stories made by youth media groups in Chicago on violence.

here is a public service announcement that talks about using a gun:

And here is one of the more powerful videos done by high school students in Chicago;

Focus on a factor in crime: unemployment, drug, guns, lack of services. Make that your focus and examine the ways it touches lives, communities, services.

Here’s an example from the Washington Post of such an effort:

Who are the youths? Exploring local records, following a trend.

The Washington Times in 2010 in a series, “A Horrible Answer,” examined youths involved in violence who are wards of the city. They found that one out of five homicides in the city involved a youth under the care of the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Service. Until their reporting, there had been no exploration of the role of these youths in such violence. The stories led to the dismal of the department’s director.

Linking generations. Telling a story over time.

We should always look for context in our stories. How has this situation changed?What links one generation to another? What forces a break in the chain of events? Here’s a very well-reported and written effort that tells the story of one youth in Chattanooga and the forces bearing down on him, his family and community.

On the role of the media in covering violence

On the stereotypes the media can provide

From the Joyce Foundation and John Jay College Center on Crime Reporting

On Gun violence:

Their conference on gun violence and links:

Check out the power point (in the conference) from U of Chicago expert on violence on what anti-gun strategies work with youth. What strategies can you document in your neighborhood and community?

See also the Crime Report for story ideas, approaches, links

For tips and guidance on covering crime:

Covering Crime and Justice

The Center for Media, Crime and Justice

As part of their series they interviewed someone in prison for a gun crime. Notice how it gives a human face to the situation:

And here’s the reporters notebook on how he went about doing the story. Notice the problems but also his findings and how he moves on:

This is a series from the Grand Rapids Press on gun crimes. Notice the use of a map to show where the crimes occur and his use of police and other sources to detail the situation. Consider tagging along with police in a high crime area to describe how they react to what they face.

This story looks at the Chicago Housing Authority and gun violence and the impact of the teardown of the housing units on crime.

This Chicago Reporter story raises questions about sending youths involved in gun crimes to prison and also asks why there are cases where no guns are indicated despite the convictions.

From the Detroit Free Press, 2004, Crime in Detroit, 7 part series, One of the stories looks at how a family tries to solve a crime on its own; Another gives a very personal look at a homicide detective’s day – notice the literary, almost novel like writing.

This is an excellent, award-winning, in-depth study by the Philadelphia Inquirer of school violence. Notice how their webpage includes studies and reports, blogs and reader reactions and how they update the articles. They also include videos from school security cameras and provide students and teachers’ views on the violence.

The Path of a Bullet, Long Beach Press Telegram, 1999, notice here how they mix a cinematic, compelling portrait of the people touched by crime by a theme about the cost of a 22 cent bullet. Again, an innovative approach that bring you to the scene.

This is the profile of an emotionally trouble youth. The message likewise is how the system failed to help him and failed to keep account of his problem.

Higher arrest levels for black youths.

Amid city officials’ talk of putting more police on Chicago’s streets and in high crime neighborhoods, the Chicago Reporter looked at what the presence of more police might mean. It concluded that more police could put more black youths in “jail for low-level crimes at a rate disproportionate to teens of other races.”

It analysis of court statistics showed that black teens were four times more likely to face misdemeanor charges than the combined number of white and Latino youth. Black youths were also three times more likely to be convicted on the charges.

Among youths arrested on charges of soliciting unlawful business, five were white and 99.2 percent of those arrested were black, according to the article.

Documenting youth violence in photos and videos;

Covering violence: Berkeley Media Studies

Here is a law review article that looks at get-tough policies towards youths and their impact. How can you update and localize the issues raised here?


Here’s an award-winning visual and written project from the Los Angeles Time that looks at the impact of violence from gangs,0,6290501.htmlstory


Looking beyond problems to solutions

What are the key factors you can identify that impact youth violence and what can be done about them? Guns, drugs, lack of youth services? Here is a story that examines the impact of financial cutbacks on programs that serve youths. The first second article, in Spanish, uses similar information but has a focus on the Latino community.

Suggestions for better coverage: Thinking Big from various sources

1. Let youth talk

  • Encourage young people to speak for themselves, promoting youth-created media to give them the opportunity to do so. Agencies that provide media training for their leaders, for example, can include young people served by the agency as spokespersons.
  • Demand more context in reporting about crime. Ask newspapers and broadcast outlets to devote more resources to covering crime, drawing on sources other than police and prosecutors to look for root causes and to connect individual events to larger public policies. For example, public health sources can help interpret data and speak about prevention efforts. When reporters and editors do a good job, tell them.
  • Encourage communities to ask the deeper questions: who benefits when young people are portrayed as selfish, irresponsible, and violent?
  • Demand that other youth issues—health care, education, employment, leadership, youth organizing, child abuse—receive as much coverage as crime.
  • Be a critical consumer of news coverage. Don’t be swayed by sensationalistic reporting. Challenge the myths of rising youth crime and school violence. Examine statistics and determine the facts. If you see crime coverage that draws erroneous conclusions, speak out.
  • Tap into the potential of youth as a political force. Youth organizing can help youth create a critical mass to challenge media stereotypes.
  • Look for solutions other than incarceration for youth crime. Journalists covering youth crime have an opportunity to publicize such solutions by interviewing youth advocates and even youth themselves.

This was taken from…..

2.  Expand your sources, contacts, views, voices

(see source at end)

“Reporting on the social and health effects of urban violence without falling victim to stereotypes or clichés is just plain hard. In Thursday’s post, I looked at some of the history and context for looking at violence as a public health issue. In this post, some veteran journalists share their tips for reporting on violence and the communities where it is pervasive.”


  • Find a guide. They can be social workers, health workers, community activists, even mothers, says journalist Celeste Fremon, who has spent years reporting on gangs and violence in Los Angeles, most notably in her book about Homeboy Industries.
  • “Find a guide, and then you’ll gradually form relationships of your own,” Fremon told our National Health Journalism Fellows at a recent seminar in Los Angeles.
  • “You go to the community’s mothers. You talk to the kid on the bike who’s circling the crime scene. You go to the experts who are community members. They’re so rarely asked, they’ll give you a narrative if you’re willing to sit down and talk to them,” Fremon said. “I use what I’ve got – I’m middle aged white lady but I’m a mom. I tell my students, bring who you are. That interest you express in them is huge.”
  • Do not use law enforcement members as your guides to a community, at least at first. Distrust of police will extend to you, said Michael Robinson Chavez, a Los Angeles Times photojournalist who worked with reporter Scott Gold on the Times series “Promise and Peril in South L.A.,”
  • which touched on this long-troubled community’s health challenges. “We had to be really cognizant of what part of the city we were in and who we were with,” Chavez said.
  • Spend considerable time in the community. “Don’t just come for a quote for your story,” says Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, a youth leadership group in Oakland. Chavez agreed,
  • saying that the time he and Gold were given to work on the Times series was invaluable in convincing people that they wanted to do more than stereotype their community.
  • Scrutinize youth services and violence prevention organizations with the same rigor you would use to report on the finances and effectiveness of other institutions on your beat. Too often, journalists give these nonprofits a free ride. In fact, they compete fiercely for limited funds and aren’t always effective as they say they are, said Patrick Boyle, editor of the trade publication Youth Today, which covers the youth services field. Here’s a good example of this kind of scrutiny, from the Times series.
  • Boyle requires reporters to request IRS 990 forms, which provide information about expenses, income and salaries, for all organizations they cover. Often, the reporters encounter resistance. “These are do-gooder organizations. You start asking hard questions and you get a reaction: ‘we’re not used to this.’ We ask for 990s because you never know.”
  • Boyle also urges reporters to examine these organizations’ results. “With anti-gun, youth violence prevention, drug prevention, gang prevention work, it’s extremely difficult for these programs to show measurable effect. Their subjects move around, very mobile, they move away, go to jail, drop out of school.”
  • “Ask for the measurement tool. And ask about who’s doing the measuring,” Boyle said. In many cases, the social service organizations are poorly evaluating their work or not evaluating it seriously at all.

Taken from:


3.  Put your reporting into a broader context, greater balance, more solution-focused. (source listed at end)

  • Expand sources beyond police and courts. Health departments and coroner’s offices are good sources of homicide data. Hospital admission data, though not always available for a breaking story, can help reporters put crime and its consequences in perspective. Other social agency employees and community residents have information about neighborhood life pertinent to crime stories. Reporters need to cultivate these sources the same way they cultivate the local beat cops.
  • Provide context for crime in regular reporting. In almost every area of news — sports, business, politics, entertainment — general information is integrated with spot reports and the news makes sense of events for audiences by placing them in a larger context, if not in the same article, then with additional graphics or sidebars or standing reports. Stories on crime and youth could be treated with equal depth and breadth.
  • Bolster enterprise and increase investigative journalism. This recommendation requires adequate investment in the practice of journalism. Reporters need the time and resources to cultivate sources, investigate leads, and identify the connections between seemingly isolated events. They need support for understanding the patterns in a community so that they recognize when an event is important and interesting, not just interesting.
  • Balance stories about crime and youth with stories about youth in general. News organizations must pull back their lens to get a broader picture of what else young people are doing. When it comes to youth, violence is as prominent in the news as education. This exaggerates the rate of violence, particularly since 52 million young people go to school but only 125,000 are arrested for violent crimes each year. What issues affect them? What other newsworthy activities are they engaged in?
  • Conduct periodic audits of news content and share the results with readers and viewers. Newspapers and television newsrooms should periodically pause to examine their content. An audit would look beyond the evening ratings and sales numbers to ask the question: If the only information our readers and viewers got were from our news, what would they know about youth and violence? What wouldn’t they know? Assess whether the news gives readers and viewers enough information to deliberate their community’s problems.
  • Examine the story selection process, and use restraint when necessary. Who qualifies as newsworthy in the newsroom? Who doesn’t? Of course, news outlets cannot stop telling unusual stories, but they need not tell every one, thereby overwhelming readers and viewers with a cumulative misrepresentation, especially when it means there is not room for less sensational but more important news. Is perceived victim “worthiness” the unspoken criteria for whether a murder is selected for the news? Reporters should ask themselves: Who qualifies as a worthy victim in my newsroom? Who doesn’t? If reporters limit themselves to reporting what just happened without considering how that crime fits into larger patterns, the news is doomed to be distorted. edia/exec.html


 Here’s an exercise.

This is a story about a Chicago youngster nearly beaten to death when mistaken for someone from a Latino youth gang. What more do you need to add to this daily story? What is your plan for a follow-up? Tomorrow? Next month? What can you do to bring this story alive using maps, social media, storify?,0,2117920.story


en español

From the Dart Center

Tragedias y Periodistas

The Spanish-language version of the Dart Center’s 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves.


Cómo Cubrir Desastres

A Spanish-language tip sheet on covering disasters.


Entrevistando Víctimas y Familias

A Spanish-language tip sheet on interviewing victims and families. 

Consejos Para Entrevistar a Niños en Situaciones Traumáticas

A Spanish translation of “Interviewing Children” by Ruth Teichroeb, a tip sheet on protecting children from further trauma when interviewing them about a traumatic event.

Ser Testigo: Periodistas y Fotografos Respondan a la Tragedia

A Spanish-language version of a multimedia presentation for journalism educators on how collaboration with photographs’ “protagonists” is the key to making powerful and responsible images. 

Covering violence: Berkeley Media Studies

see also this link to their handbook on covering violence:


A final word

Why better media coverage matters

1. Public perception of violent crime is largely a function of media coverage of crime, especially youth crime. Many adults have little contact with youth and most never directly experience youth crime. This leaves them to base their impressions of youth and youth crime on external sources such as word of mouth, public officials, and, in particular, the media.

2. Media coverage does not reflect a sufficiently thorough or, in many cases, accurate understanding of youth or youth crime. Most stories about young people depict them as troubled or, more likely, as trouble for society; stories about youth typically associate youth with violence, whether as victim or instigator. Far too much coverage focuses on infrequent but heinous cases, without any context.

3.  After extensive reporting on gangs in Phoenix, the New Times in 1999 took a look at the work done by the Arizona Republic.  It concluded that the reporting was “uneven and often police-driven;” that the newspaper had not printed an in-depth look at gangs in 10 years, that it gave greater coverage to deaths as a result of domestic violence and children drowned than the total number who died as a result of gang violence.

From the Nieman Reports:

This issue is devoted to covering violence and children. And this article in the issue offers good recommendations on what the news media can do differently.

Here are the recommendations from one article from this report:

  • Create a local violence database that lists violent incidents accumulated from a variety of sources, including law enforcement (police reports), criminal justice (coroner reports, restraining orders) and public health (hospital discharge data, emergency room data). Link this to a geographic information system component so that reporters and editors can more easily identify crime trends. Include a story-mapping component in the database so that reporters and editors can see, at a glance, what stories have been published in which categories.
  • Hire a violence reporter who is trained in computer-assisted reporting, has a science or medical reporting background, and is familiar with epidemiological methods.
  • Establish a violence-prevention reporting team with an editor, violence reporter, police reporter and features reporter. Assign part-time to this team a medical/health reporter, science/technology reporter, education reporter, political reporter, business reporter and graphics editor.
  • Organize the team around the violence-prevention reporter who monitors the local, state and national databases as well as public health research. This reporter presents the information to the team, which decides on how to develop stories based on the data. The police and court reporters continue to do their traditional coverage, augmented by what they can retrieve from the database with the help of the violence reporter.
  • Eliminate short briefs. They offer no context or useful information.
  • For every violent incident reported (high-profile or common), add information as text or a graphic to put each reported violent incident in the context of local violent incidents. Include relevant risk factors, such as the type of weapon, relationship of victim to perpetrator, whether alcohol or other drugs were involved, whether the perpetrator and victim have families. Include as much initial information about consequences as possible: What happens to the families? What is the cost of incarceration?
  • For each violent incident reported, do follow-up stories to address the consequences of the violent incident that affect the immediate families and the community. Include stories and information drawn from public health resources, in addition to law enforcement and criminal justice sources. Add information about economic and psychological consequences of crime to family and community as well as information about public health research into particular violence issues. These stories would appear in the weekly violence newspaper section, or as a feature on television news.
  • Newspapers can publish a weekly page that focuses on solutions to crime and violence. This weekly page would include:
  1. A column about the week’s most prominent violent incidents, placing them in perspective and explaining why they received the most attention. This can be written by the newspaper’s ombudsman or violence reporter, and in it the writer can also explain how the community is working to prevent such crimes, if they are preventable, or why they are not. If the community is not working to reduce preventable crimes, find a community that has had success doing so.
  2. A graphic status report on violent crime within the community and how this compares with the national goals set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or local goals set by the community.
  3. A feature written by the violence, medical/health, science/technology, political, education or social services reporters that focuses on one aspect of a particular type of violence. The story would include solutions, attempted solutions, or the status of previously reported attempted solutions to prevent violence in the community.
  • Design a local morbidity and mortality section for the news organization’s Web site. Make the newspaper’s local violence database available. Report deaths and injuries from all causes. Include obituaries. This becomes not only a vehicle for reporting on violence, but the data reviewed and included in this section would also enable reporters to spot trends in other types of death, including diseases such as hepatitis, AIDS, cancer, stroke, etc., and to do stories if the changes are statistically significant.
  • Publish an annual report on “health of the community” to compare rates of violence in the community with national goals to reduce rates of violence in “Healthy People 2000,” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Source: From the Casey report on youths, crime and news media



Please send me your advice, your reporting, your comments. Let’s work together. 

Steve Franklin, Community Media Workshop, office 312 369 7782, cell 773 595 8667,





  • Christmas ornaments

    December 29, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Fantasticly written write-up, if only all bloggers created a similar written content just like you, the net would be a more suitable place.

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