There is no perfect or universal way to classify a mass shooting. As such, reliable, nuanced data on the topic is sparse. And further complicating the reporter’s job is the way even the most human stories can become fuel for the right-versus-left fire.

It’s with these challenges in mind that three reporters and researchers came together at the 2014 IRE conference. Patricia Carbajales, who has worked on Stanford University’s journalist-friendly database on mass shootings that dates back more than 45 years, and Mark Follman, a senior editor at Mother Jones who led an award-winning investigation on mass shootings, discussed their techniques for compiling data. Pulitzer Prize winner Trymaine Lee, who covers education, poverty and gun violence for msnbc.com, provided a perspective on how gun violence is reported in black communities.

Follman says his investigative efforts sprung from a post-Aurora shooting realization that no data existed to classify mass shootings of the manner that seemed to be happening more frequently. Follman and his team established criteria, deciding to seek out instances in which at least four people were killed and in which the shooter had an apparent motive to kill indiscriminately. They sorted through years of news reports to compile their data.

But Lee, who was one of the first reporters to cover the case of Trayvon Martin, warns against falling into a pattern of belief that says only some shootings are important.

Later, Carbajales discusses how a similar numbness can take hold from the force of the political left vs. right. She urges reporters to humanize the stories of shooting victims and their families, and to dig deeper.

More resources:

  • For more insights from the three panelists, listen to the full discussion here.
  • Read Mother Jones’ data and other resources on gun violence collected by Follman here.
  • Click through USA Today’s investigation into mass killings here and check out a presentation on how it came together here.