Covering Urban Violence as a Public Health Problem: Context and History

Published on
July 22, 2010

Emergency room doctor Ted Corbin was tired of stitching up the same gang members over and over, only to send them back out to Philadelphia's most violent streets. So he did something novel: he started talking to them. He challenged his own assumptions. And he helped to start Healing Hurt People, a program that links young people treated in the ER for intentional injuries to social workers and mental health professionals.  

"Those wounds are deeper than flesh itself, so we're trying to get more than just medicine involved," Corbin told our National Health Journalism Fellows, whose seminar last week in Los Angeles focused on violence and health.

Challenging assumptions about gangs, race and violence may not seem like part of a health journalist's job description. Yet the concept of violence as a significant public health threat has been around for at least 30 years. That said, the urgency of the issue has waxed and waned over time; the American Public Health Association has established a violence committee to "reinvigorate public health efforts around violence."

Here's some quick context and resources for covering violence as a public health issue. On Friday, I'll offer some tips from journalists who have covered this highly-charged topic.

1. What's the history? People first started talking about violence as a public health issue in 1979. The American Medical Association's "Virtual Mentor" publication offers a fascinating history on its evolution, touching on such factors as a startling rise in homicides and suicides particularly among young black men in the 1980s and the increasing acceptance of behavioral factors as important in determining health.  Also helpful is this CDC timeline of violence-public health developments.

2. PTSD. Health professionals are looking at victims of violence (who may also be perpetrators) through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder, and it's something journalists should consider, too.  Dr. John A. Rich, an expert on violence and health who spoke at our recent seminar, offers great insights that you can use in your reporting.

3. Law enforcement.  Health and social service professionals working on violence issues can have an uneasy relationship with their local officers, who often see them as sources who can help them solve or prevent crimes. Be aware of this in your reporting. "We're strange bedfellows with police – it's a very delicate walk about how you want to be in that relationship," said Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, a youth leadership group in Oakland. She tells local police: "You don't want me to report a crime. You want me to prevent a crime."

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Covering Urban Violence as a Public Health Problem: Tips from Top Journalists