Guns & America: New Public Radio Project Wants You to Better Understand All Sides

A new program will take listeners beyond the politics of the current gun debate to explore Americans’ relationships with weapons.
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KCUR is one of 10 public radio stations nationwide selected to participate in a new collaborative, two-year fellowship called Guns & America

Photo by ZhangKun/Getty Images

In 2016 the murder rate in Kansas City spiked inexplicably. Homicides that year rose 14 percent in Kansas City, Missouri, and 42 percent in Kansas City, Kansas, even as other large U.S. cities saw their rates decline.

At KCUR, the local public radio station, reporters, and editors saw an opportunity for an ongoing program series called “The Argument,” looking beyond the crime statistics for the motives and backstories to help listeners better understand what happened.

Now the Kansas City station has a chance to broaden that level of reporting by examining another disturbing American dynamic: gun violence. KCUR is one of 10 public radio stations nationwide selected to participate in a new collaborative, two-year fellowship called Guns & America. Funded with a $5.3 million grant from the Kendeda Fund and spearheaded by Washington D.C.-based station, WAMU, the Audion Fellowship will use effective storytelling to examine the many ways Americans interact with firearms.

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The project was in the works long before the shootings at a Parkland, Florida, high school and more recently in Texas focused the nation’s attention on the issue of gun violence. It comes as Americans are seriously grappling with a range of political solutions—from a Stand Your Ground bill in Idaho and lawsuits in Oregon against retailers refusing to sell guns to those under 21, to “ghost gun” conversations in Connecticut that arose out of stricter laws following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Inevitably, in this country, the debate around guns breaks down along party lines, leaving both sides scratching their heads about why the other side could possibly believe what it does. Guns & America is designed to advance the conversation by taking listeners beyond the politics to help them understand the many ways people use weapons—whether as tools, protection, to hunt, or to enforce the law. “We really want to get to how people come to believe what they believe about guns,” says Andi McDaniel, senior director of content and news at WAMU. “It’s impossible to have a conversation about how or if to regulate them if we don’t understand where people are coming from.”

They also want listeners to connect with the subjects of their stories as real people, leading real and understandable lives. “I think anytime you can put a human voice to an issue it helps people listen. Listening is so rare these days. That’s something we try to do with every one of our stories,” says Jeremy Bernfeld, director of collaborative reporting at WAMU.

What McDaniel and Bernfeld are describing are called “driveway moments,” which National Public Radio listeners have come to know well—moments created by compelling storytelling, a powerful tool made even more dynamic in the digital age. The challenge comes in creating those moments around an issue as divisive as guns.

“The problem is deeply entrenched views about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong and a lack of understanding about how different people come to their understanding of their beliefs about guns,” McDaniel says.

“A person’s zip code is more of an indicator of life expectancy than his or her genetic code.”

In order to do this well, the organizers at WAMU sought out partner stations with strong reputations, the ability to collaborate, and the capacity to cover topics with nuance rather than preconceived notions. “We looked for public media partners creating innovative and trustworthy journalism where the guns issue was important to the community, with an eye toward diversity, including different political persuasions and regulations, to speak to the tapestry that is the United States,” Bernfeld says.

That included places like Kansas City, with racial and socio-economic diversity in its listenership and a market that straddles two states, both touting some of the nation’s most permissive gun laws.

For KCUR, it’s a chance to take what reporters there learned in producing The Argument and applying more collaboration, technology, staffing, and support. In that year-long series, reporters examined the emotional forces behind more than 200 murders in the Kansas City area in 2016. It was the second year in a row that the metro area had seen an increase in murders, landing it on a list of seven similar-sized cities that helped to drive up the nation’s murder rate.

In the first story, the reporters described how a longstanding dispute between two men led to the murder of one of them as he changed a baby’s diaper. Kansas City’s public health department described murder as a public health epidemic stemming from childhood trauma that extends out into the community. “A person’s zip code,” concluded the deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department, “is more of an indicator of life expectancy than his or her genetic code.”

Donna Vestal, director of content strategy at KCUR, said having more data capabilities, comparing trends and being able to see the bigger picture, will help them to tell a better local story.

“This initiative will give us the firepower in terms of journalistic thinking and commitment to take it to another level,” she says.

Organizers at WAMU and Kendeda believe public radio is uniquely positioned for such a project because it is audience-funded, has a network of stations, and is focused on sustained and in-depth journalism. And they want to use it to be even better positioned in the future to reach younger and more diverse audiences and take full advantage of storytelling in the digital age. “We want our cohort of fellows to leave having done great work, journalism that has an impact, but also to leave after two years feeling like they have all the skills and experience necessary to be cutting edge journalist in 2020,” Bernfeld says.

The stations will select mid-career journalists with strong journalism backgrounds to create a cohort with diverse political viewpoints and life experiences. Each will be trained in solutions-based journalism, digital media, and multiple modes of storytelling. “It takes a whole new set of skills, an entrepreneurship and nimbleness that public media will require in the future,” McDaniel says. “We are working on a series of embeds at digital-first news publications, to give a different orientation to that approach, as well as expertise in guns, and reporting on issues with some level of trauma involved.”

Still, they recognize that collaborating across editors, stations, and working within the NPR network will be challenging. Because of the polarizing nature of the gun debate, they also realize it will be difficult to reach diverse audiences and open them to new perspectives. “It’s the same set of challenges that exist around any initiative that aims to move a needle: resistance, inflexibility and set cultures, a lack of openness. It’s hard to move people from what they think and what they believe, what they’ve heard or seen affirmed by their peers,” McDaniel says. “That’s why we are focusing on moving stories, human stories.”