It’s a rare day in Chicago we don’t have at least one, usually multiple shootings and deaths. As journalists, our goal is to inform, not frighten. And yet as we tell these stories we wonder, what are people taking away from the news coverage? WGN reporter Gaynor Hall has been looking at how the media covers violence.
There are few bigger issues in Chicago right now than violence on the city’s streets. And there is no shortage of complaints on the role the media plays in reporting on that violence. Some viewers ask, why do you cover certain murders and not all? Others tell us they don’t watch the news any more because it’s too depressing. So tonight, we’re turning the cameras’ glare on ourselves, talking to viewers, students, and working journalists about these issues.
“As I watch the news adamantly I mourn. It hurts,” says Robert Douglas, who lost his brother more than 20 years ago. Anthony was shot and killed at 114th and Prairie in the Roseland neighborhood. “To this day, we suffer from that loss.” Without his role model, Robert went from aspiring basketball star to convicted drug dealer. Now, at 39, he’s a student at Chicago State examining violence and how the media cover it. “Gun violence is sexy in Chicago right now. We did look at the news to be informed, right? But now we look at the news to see what community is being riddled with bullets. I understand media, I understand the business part of media.” Gaynor asks Robert, “What do you understand about the business part?” Robert answers “I understand that if you don’t do that eye popping way of covering news, people won’t tune in.” Robert thinks news coverage is lacking in accuracy and sensitivity. He says every time he sees a crying mother on T-V, he reburies his brother. “All the media gets is the struggle. Where is the healing?” Whether your source is TV news, newspapers, radio, or websites, violence in Chicago dominates local sometimes national headlines, like the recent “48 Hours” investigation on CBS News called “The War in Chicago.” With so many murders, who gets coverage and who doesn’t? *That is the critical question facing journalists every day. As a journalism professor at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, Suzanne McBride is training the next generation of reporters. “When you have someone who has no criminal record, when you have someone who was just really hanging out with her friends on a nice day after school and something really horrible goes wrong, I understand why that’s news. But the problem is there are many more cases like that. Just because we don’t have the number of journalists out there covering these day in day out there are lots of stories like that.” Her students spent last semester going after some of the untold stories in Chicago. Patrick Smith is in Columbia’s graduate program. “One death affects countless amounts of people.” Their goal? … to go beyond the grim statistics, tracking unsolved homicides, and sticking with the story to learn what happens to the family, the neighborhood, even the detective working the case. Grad student Reema Amin is one of those graduate students telling stories in more depth. “I do think a lot of Chicago journalists are doing a good job of kind of getting a handle on that kind of in depth coverage, I just think there should be more of it.” N’Digo Magazine publisher Hermene Hartman takes issue with the quality of violence coverage in Chicago. “As media people, how we cover,we desensitize. We are becoming immune. I think some of the coverage is what I call scoreboard reporting. 8 shot last night. 8 shot in Roseland. 8 shot in Englewood. And then we see reports from the police department that say the crime rate is going down and is improving.” She cites vague suspect descriptions, and the “gang related” label that sometimes turn out to be untrue. Pastor Corey Brooks voiced similar concerns as a press conference late last month. “I think a lot of times the way young black men are portrayed in our neighborhood in the press – unknowingly, I don’t think you do it intentionally, you just don’t know. And you equate a young 19 year old boy or a young 13 year old boy in a gang, he grows up to become an adult and he’s no longer in a gang. You still see him as a gang member or a gang banger and that is so far from the truth.” Shamus Toomey is managing editor of dnainfo.com/Chicago. The hyper local news website launched late last year with a commitment to telling the story of every homicide victim in the city. “We made a decision that we’re not going to try to guess which of these people are important or which of these people are worth writing about- we’re going to cover all of them and sort of let the chips fall where they may. Tell their stories because they’re interesting stories. And they’re stories that need to be told to sort of paint a picture of what’s going on in Chicago.” And painting a true picture also means showing communities that are predominantly black and brown, are not defined by yellow crime tape. Again, Suzanne McBride from Columbia College, “I think if the only thing you cover in Englewood if the only thing you cover in Austin is crime then absolutely the picture that you’re painting for readers and viewers day in and day out is not an accurate one. It doesn’t really tell people the full and rich history and life for each of those communities.” Robert Douglas, who lost his brother to gun violence more than two decades ago says, “I think people care, they really care.” And he hopes to see more stories about resilience, solutions, and success. “I think if you covered it a little different, not just you, if we cover it as a community. If we wrap our hands around that family, you couldn’t cover it any other way.” Deciding what to cover is one of the most challenging things the media does, and not just with violence, with all stories. Part of the prioritizing process is gauging audience tolerance for coverage of crime. But, Shamus Toomey with dnainfo.com says he’s noticed a change in recent years in how local news outlets are approaching violence coverage. They’re addressing not just the who, what, when, and where of these horrible crimes, but the why- why it’s happening in Chicago? And why it matters no matter what community you live in.