Critics: Philadelphia shooting treated like a ‘video game’ on local TV news

An executive at CBS Philadelphia said the photo is no longer in use.

A recent shooting happened on an athletic field near Roxborough High School

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An ominously lit football field overlaid with all-caps words highlighting “CONTINUING COVERAGE” – right next to an image of crosshairs, as if looking through the scope of a gun.

This image landed on televisions across the Delaware Valley after a 14-year-old was killed and four other teenagers were injured in a shooting near Roxborough High School following a football game between the Northwest Philly school and two other teams.

Some viewers found it disturbing and called it harmful.

“Hey @CBSPhiladelphia, you’ve got to be kidding me with this graphic,” wrote Twitter user @sari_ramirez. “A child died. This is not a video game.”

Graphics packages can change often, CBS Philly Vice President of News Kathleen Gerrow told Billy Penn. She said the channel phased out the tweeted image before noon on Wednesday.

Asked if she would respond directly to the criticism of the graphic, Gerrow declined.

The medium of broadcast news often lends itself to sensationalism, said Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who has covered social justice and racial equality. That can be true regardless of whether a station’s approach is “outright sensationalist or exudes sensationalism, regardless of efforts to perhaps be sensitive,” he said.

“Honestly, it looks like they’re trying to get the most out of this in terms of ratings and viewers,” Washington said of the CBS3 graphic. “Bottom line, they’re hyping these things up, and that’s unfortunate.”

As horrific as the post-scrimmage shooting was, it was far from an isolated incident. Philadelphia leaders and community members are scrambling to find a way out of the crisis. More than four dozen people were shot in Philly over the past week, according to data released by the City Controller’s Office. At least 10 were teenagers or children.

Covering gun violence — especially how to do it responsibly and sensitively — has become a hotly debated topic in the news industry.

“You’d think the death of a child would prompt the most dignified treatment of a story imaginable,” wrote Aubery Nagle, director of practice change at Resolve Philadelphia, commenting on the Twitter post of the graphic. “A gun sight superimposed on soccer grass is video game visuals. Stop it.”

Several local reporters, editors, researchers and advocates gathered in Northwest Philly on Wednesday to Better Gun Violence Reporting Workshop. Billy Penn was in attendance and will soon publish takeaways, but in the mind the planned conference was called to address exactly the situation that Channel 3’s treatment of the Roxborough shooting showed.

The modern local news broadcast format was born in Philadelphia, and the medium has been criticized as harmful for reducing many neighborhoods and communities—often made up of people of color—to the violence that occurs there.

A graphic seen on the CBS Philadelphia broadcast stream Wednesday afternoon
Screenshot / CBS News Philadelphia

The hype isn’t the only problem with media coverage of gun violence, however — a big problem is the material missing from mainstream programming, Temple’s Washington said.

While there is plenty of coverage of individual shootings when they happen, the underlying causes of violence are not adequately addressed in everyday coverage, he said. That includes issues such as educational disparities, poverty and a lack of employment opportunities among communities experiencing violence, he said, or political inaction on the part of government leaders.

This is not to say that the media are responsible for all of society’s problems, he added. But it is important to provide context, and the media can act as a watchdog on these issues.

“So much of this coverage is episodic when the problems are endemic,” Washington said. “When you just take a little piece here and a little piece there, and you don’t talk about the connective tissue, then you do a disservice.”

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