Mass Shootings and The News Media: Catching Up On The Science Of PACEs

My take on examining shooter’s families: I think it’s great to report what happened in a shooter’s family…as long as a reporter takes a trauma-informed approach. That means reporting without using words of blame, shame or punishment…so a headline that says “Are the parents to blame?” would change to “What happened in that family?”

– Jane Ellen Stevens, PACEs

How do we, as a country, learn about mass shootings and gun violence? The news media. How do we learn about the best approaches to prevent mass shootings and gun violence? The answer should be “the news media”, but it’s not. Yet.

People who know about the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs) understand that PACEs are at the root of violence. The news media is getting there. In the last couple of years of mass shootings, more articles examined the childhood of the shooter, but more could be done, as I pointed out in essays I wrote after the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, shootings.

After last week’s mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, two new threads appeared:

  1. A deep look at the shooter’s family (and this) to address the question: Are the parents to blame?
  2. And the growing number of online communities of mostly male youth or young men that glorify violence and are obsessed with nihilism. “I’ve described this as sort of like a mass shooter creation machine,” said Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in an interview with NPR’s Odette Yousef. “A lot of these communities are designed to spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over.”

My take on examining shooter’s families: I think it’s great to report what happened in a shooter’s family…as long as a reporter takes a trauma-informed approach. That means reporting without using words of blame, shame or punishment…so a headline that says “Are the parents to blame?” would change to “What happened in that family?”

Parents pass on ACEs—and positive childhood experiences (PCEs), for that matter—to their children. So, if they aren’t cognizant of their own ACEs, how can they possibly understand their child’s ACEs? And where did parents get their ACEs and PCEs? From their parents and environment. How to break the cycle? Educate families, organizations and communities about PACEs science, and integrate practices and policies based on PACEs science in all organizations in every community.

My take on the online cultures of violence: At the moment, the proposed solutions are to understand the subculture and moderate the content. “It’s not hard to figure out where different violent spaces are,” Emmi Conley, an independent researcher of far-right extremist movements, digital propaganda and online subcultures told NPR. “What’s hard is what do you do once you find one, if the red flag still falls within free speech territory. Because currently we have no intervention abilities, we only have law enforcement.” I have another idea: It seems to me that these subcultures provide a perfect opportunity to reach out and help youth who are in dire need of a caring adult and counseling. That’s a project worth funding!!

Ongoing issues: There’s the ongoing issue of the news media’s obsession with mass shootings, while mostly ignoring aggregate shootings, which receive little attention. And then the dire news of too many incidents of violence that lead news organizations to not cover important stories, and in almost every community, not cover the type of violence that costs communities the most in heartbreak and dollars—family violence. This headline in the Washington Post points out that mass shootings may be going the way of family violence coverage—too little coverage to help a community figure out how to prevent the violence. There are too many mass shootings for the U.S. media to cover: News organizations must make agonizing decisions about which shootings deserve on-the-ground reporting, and for how long.

There’s a more contextual, solution-oriented way to cover crime and violence. First, incorporate violence coverage into a health section. Then:

  1. Scan the types of violence and other crime in your community to understand what crimes affects the community the most, in the trauma they cause as well as their economic cost.
  2. Cover the types of violence and other crime with a public health, or solutions-oriented, approach.
  3. Report the ongoing status of different types of violence that affect the community the most so that a community can answer this question: Are we making progress in reducing this type of violence or not? Use lots of continually updated charts and graphs. Think sports or business coverage.
  4. Include training for all news organization staff in the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.

Here are a few thoughts about where we are now. (Make a note of the next few graphs. You might be surprised.)

Violence prevention proponents note that the challenge to change attitudes toward violence—to convince Americans that violence is predictable and preventable—is no different from the attitudes public health experts faced when they suggested in the 1950s that stopping smoking would reduce lung cancer rates and in the 1960s that wearing seat belts and not driving under the influence of alcohol would reduce automobile deaths and injuries.

For example, until the 1960s, traffic deaths and injuries were typically blamed on “the nut behind the wheel.” Prevention approaches were limited to admonitions to drive safely. Then, public health experts, law enforcement agencies, transportation departments, injury control scientists, consumer advocates, public policy makers and vehicle manufacturers began looking at auto deaths and injuries as a public health issue. Instead of studying only how the human factor contributed to crashes, they also investigated the vehicle and the environment. In 1975, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began accumulating information through its Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS). FARS uses police records and death certificates to accumulate data on the driver (age, sex, blood alcohol level, if wearing seatbelt), the vehicle (vehicle identification number that reveals make, manufacturer and product characteristics) and the environment (weather, location and roadway conditions). To recommend specific safety improvements, researchers used FARS data to identify unsafe conditions in driver behavior, vehicles and the environment.

As a result, over the last 30 years and often amid great controversy, car manufacturers added collapsible steering columns, seat belts, shoulder harnesses, roll bars, padded dashboards, anti-lock braking systems, airbags and safety glass to the vehicles they made. States passed laws requiring seat belts for all riders and car seats for young children, and they created stiff penalties for people driving under the influence of alcohol. Highway engineers improved the safety of roadways and intersections. If the death rate from auto crashes had remained the same as it was 30 years ago, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people would be dying annually on the nation’s highways compared with the 40,000 who now die in highway crashes.

When public health researchers began identifying the risk factors that contribute to auto crashes, journalists began reporting breaking news of traffic injuries and fatalities differently. They began including the type of car and its manufacturer, whether people were driving drunk or wearing seatbelts, the conditions of the road or intersection, and whether stop lights were functioning or stop signs were in place. Feature articles focused on automobile safety design, laws to prevent drinking and driving, vehicle recalls to correct safety problems and court cases that addressed auto safety issues.

Similarly, since the 1980s, hundreds of national, state and local violence prevention research projects and programs have emerged. Physicians, public health experts, epidemiologists and social scientists are using the public health model to study violence. They analyze the relationship among the person who is killed or injured, the weapon and the physical, economic and social environments in which violence occurs. In 1983, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiated a program to study the causes of violence and founded the Center for Injury Control and Prevention. In 1984, U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared that violence was as much a public health issue for today’s physicians as smallpox was for the medical community in previous generations.

Identifying the risk factors of violence is a complex undertaking. There are many different types of violence—violence in which women, children, the elderly and men are injured and killed in their homes by family members; gang violence; dating violence; violence by acquaintances; violence by strangers; etc. Risk factors vary with different types of violence and often from community to community. Some of the risk factors that have been identified as contributing to high levels of the many types of violence include: poverty, racial segregation and discrimination, unemployment, the ready availability of alcohol, the ready availability of firearms, the portrayal of violence in the media, being male, being young, a lack of education in child rearing, childhood exposure to lead, abuse as a child, witnessing violent acts in the home or neighborhood, the belief in male dominance over females and isolation of the nuclear family.

Violence is a difficult epidemic to understand and control because no one factor—elimination or redesign of guns, decrease in availability of alcohol or reduction of media violence—will prevent all violence. Each type of violence in a community results from a unique combination of social, cultural, biological and economic risk factors and thus requires a unique combination of preventive measures. Therefore, prevention approaches must involve a unique combination of people who attempt to solve the problem: doctors, researchers, community organizers, lawmakers, police officers, judges, social workers, teachers, parents and citizens.

Traditionally, journalists have reported violent incidents as only a law enforcement and criminal justice issue. But now that an epidemiological approach to violence has been established, the media can expand their reporting of violence—in breaking news as well as features—to identify factors that contribute to violence.


I wrote the eight paragraphs above in 1997. (Reporting on Violence, a handbook for journalists.) That’s 25 years ago! And I wasn’t the first to make these points.

Over those last 25 years, the main development that has changed our understanding of violence—and one that is actually leading to remarkable solutions—is the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which was published in 1998 and opened the door to our understanding of why humans do what they do. Since then, we’ve learned that the roots of violence and being a victim of violence are the same roots that lead to chronic disease, mental illness, and economic problems; they lie in the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences. This knowledge has provided a new mindset on how to change human behavior—criminal, unhealthy or unwanted behavior. This mindset changes a traditional approach of using practices and policies based on blame, shame and punishment to an approach that uses practices and policies grounded in understanding, nurturing and healing. (See PACEs science 101 for more details about the science as well as links to articles about people who are using it.)

If reporters or editors want some ideas on how to provide more context in crime reporting (with a deeper understanding of PACEs science), send them here.

This article first appeared on, a social network for community of people who us the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences to solve our most intractable problems, and on, a companion news site for the general public. 


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