Scarce funding limits public media’s response to gun debate

By Debra E. Blum

Photojournalist Carlos Javier Ortiz's project "Too Young to Die" was one of two media projects dealing with gun violence to win grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The center received more than 80 proposals responding to its recent RFP. (Photo: Carlos Javier Ortiz, carlosjortiz.com)

Photojournalist Carlos Javier Ortiz’s project “Too Young to Die” was one of two media projects dealing with gun violence to win grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The center received more than 80 proposals responding to its recent RFP. (Photo: Carlos Javier Ortiz, carlosjortiz.com)

The mass shootings last year in Colorado, Wisconsin and Connecticut reawakened Americans to recurring tragedies of gun violence and rekindled a national debate about gun control — one that public radio and television have chronicled and analyzed through ongoing programs and the package of special broadcasts that aired on PBS last month.

But along with news coverage and the occasional specials, pubcasters and documentary producers could be doing much more on the gun-violence issue, observers say, if more funding were available in the field.

“Philanthropy is really sparse on this topic,” says Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders. “There’s some attention paid to it, and maybe a little more now, but it’s not well-resourced.”

Audiences have already demonstrated their interest in programs dealing with gun violence:

  • A two-part radio series examining the crisis of gun violence in one Chicago school, “Harper High School,” proved so popular when it aired on This American Life in February that the show’s distributor Public Radio International is arranging for rebroadcasts on other nonprofit and commercial radio stations. More than 1 million listeners have downloaded the programs from the TAL website, and so many listeners expressed an interest in helping the school that administrators set up an online donation page.
  • Inundated by reactions from viewers to its half-hour documentary special Connecticut’s Gun Fight, which aired last month, Connecticut Public Television is planning repeat broadcasts and working to keep up with dozens of requests from schools, police groups and lawmakers for screenings, copies and Internet links to the program.
  • The Interrupters, a highly acclaimed Frontline documentary about a Chicago-based organization working to prevent gang violence, continues to gain attention more than two years after its broadcast premiere. Kartemquin Films, which produced the documentary, is planning launch of a second outreach website tied to the documentary. It will feature new educational materials and an interactive shrine to honor victims of gun violence.

At the same time viewer, listener and community interest in gun issues is high, producers are clamoring for limited resources:

  • The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fielded 80 proposals in response to a recent call for what would be only two grant awards for media projects on gun violence in the city of Chicago and internationally.
  • The Independent Television Service anticipates grant requests from several filmmakers working on productions that touch on gun violence or the gun debate — including one from a producer who already alerted ITVS of a Newtown-based documentary — during its open solicitation process for finishing funds in June.
  • Janet Fitch, a filmmaker who produced three documentaries following the Million Mom March, the anti-gun-violence rally in 2000, is about to embark on a fundraising drive to relaunch a national campaign around her project “Guns, Grief and Grace in America: Three Films to Change the Way We Talk, Act and Think about Gun Violence.”

Some funders have recently taken up the challenge of examining what support is available in the field and how they might broaden their involvement. In January, Philanthropy New York, an association of grant makers, along with Media Impact Funders, co-sponsored the forum “Changing the Debate: Funders’ Role in Gun Safety.” And about 60 grant makers and nonprofit officials gathered for a February panel discussion on a similar topic hosted by the Southern California Grantmakers, the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation.

The message, according to attendees, was the same at both meetings: Jump in.

“It’s a hot topic, so people are mulling it over,” says Roderick Jenkins, program officer at the New York Community Trust, which has made grants in recent years to groups working to stem gun violence. “The idea is to figure out what’s the best fit for your organization and then get in the mix.”

But a problem for many foundations, Jenkins and others say, is that gun violence often falls through the cracks between different program areas that grant makers traditionally support. It doesn’t fit squarely under issues of health, poverty, or community or economic development, for example, though it touches on all those subjects. And public broadcasters find that corporate support may be hard to come by, too, because businesses generally steer clear of attaching their name to issues that generate such controversy and gloom.

Neal Shapiro, president of New York’s WNET, says that in December his station greenlighted production of special post-Newtown programming without first seeking underwriting, in part, he says, because of the small likelihood of finding any.

“It’s hard to raise money on a controversial news subject because businesses shy away and foundations aren’t interested unless it happens to be right in the sweet spot of what they care about,” Shapiro says. “It’s much easier to find money for a story on a piece of history that makes you feel good about our country, or on the arts, because those are uplifting.”

Even without new money flowing, plenty of nonprofit media producers are moving ahead on the issue.

Following the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, PBS corralled its own producers of primetime series and news programs to work in tandem to report on various gun issues. The result was “After Newtown,” a five-hour package that aired in February. It included a Frontline report on the Newtown shooter and a Nova documentary analyzing what motivates rampage killers.

WNET received some support from PBS for its own three-hour special What Next After Newtown: What Our Country and Communities Can Do. But, in the absence of additional funding, producers used footage and reporting borrowed from other stations to round out their national coverage.

Other pubcasters have tackled gun issues from their own angles and existing channels of funding. The Nine Network of Public Media in St. Louis, which has raised about $200,000 in the past year for news coverage and community projects related to issues of youth mental health, is using its resources and expertise to address mental health issues related to youth gun violence. After the Newtown shootings, it devoted an extra-long episode of its weekly public-affairs show to the subject, and appended some of that content and other material to its local broadcast of WNET’s Newtown special. The Nine Network is also devoting the month of May to special programming and outreach on the mental health issues affecting young people, some of which can be root causes of violent behavior.

“We are part of the national dialogue on guns, just with a more upstream focus,” says Amy Shaw, the station’s senior vice president of community engagement.

Though media makers and programmers had limited resources to launch the field’s initial response to the gun debate, there are signs that the national dialogue has helped to shake out some new money. The Pulitzer Center, for example, was inspired by Newtown to offer its two media awards. One $10,000 grant will go to photojournalist Carlos Javier Ortiz, who plans to expand his project “Too Young to Die,” illustrating the impact of gun violence on people and communities.

Producers of The Interrupters note that last year’s shocking shootings may have helped keep their film and outreach campaign in the spotlight. They recently landed about $150,000 from the BRITDOC Foundation and the Fledgling Fund, among others, to create and run their new website, interruptviolence.com, to be launched in the coming months.

“We were already in the space with a well-known film and a track record of engaging on the issue of urban violence,” says filmmaker Steve James. “There’s some money out there, but definitely not enough for all the great stories that can and should be told.” n

Debra Blum is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer specializing in coverage of the nonprofit world.
This article was originally published in Current, April 1, 2013.

  • Morgan Holm

    It should be noted that specific additional funding is not necessarily a prerequisite for additional coverage of this issue. This week, OPB is airing an in-depth radio news series in morning drive, a half-hour radio documentary in afternoon drive and a one-hour special available nationally thanks to a collaboration with The Takeaway. [Links here: http://www.opb.org/news/series/gunstories/
    We’ve also developed an extensive Tumblr site giving our audience opportunities to engage with the topic (http://gunstories.tumblr.com/). We drew on sources available to us through the Public Insight Network to seed the Tumblr page.
    All of this was done without any grant funding, simply a commitment to providing high quality journalism and engagement opportunities consistent with what public media audiences have come to expect from us. I’m sure other local stations are finding it possible to cover the issue in similar ways.

    –Morgan Holm, Vice President, News & Public Affairs, Oregon Public Broadcasting

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