As if we didn’t know it already, Melissa McCarthy parodying President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer this past Saturday told us what the White House thinks of Chicago.
McCarthy’s Spicer screamed at the media in the White House press room, while pointing at the press corp: “Eighty percent of the people in Chicago have been murdered and are dead! And that’s on you, you did that!”
Of course, that’s ridiculous. It’s an over-the-top parody. The media is not responsible for the shootings. Right? Yes, that’s right. But that doesn’t mean the media don’t bear some responsibility for how the issue of violence is covered and the impressions of Chicago it has given the world.
Reporter William Lee wrote about that in a recent Chicago Tribune column about his crime and violence beat. He writes:
“To outsiders who only hear about Chicago’s violent crime from network nightly news and national publications, the city must seem like it’s in free fall …”
President Trump is also talking tough and warlike about Chicago’s shootings. Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet observed last week:
“Trump’s comments came during a meeting with county sheriffs, where he told them, ‘if you ran Chicago, you would solve that nightmare, I tell you… Because to allow — I mean, literally — hundreds of shootings a month, it’s worse than some of the places that we read about in the Middle East, where you have wars going on…’ ”
It can, in fact, seem like there is a war in Chicago, just looking at the numbers. As Lee points out:
“[A]ccording to Tribune data, its 784 homicides and 4,367 shootings in 2016, in the very worst kind of throwback to the 1990s.”
But it’s not yet up to what it was in the 1990s. I was there when the death counts were 943 and 931. In 1997, when the count went down to 761, it felt like a gift.
Almost 20 years later, I still dream of the young people I covered who did not get away from the bullets:
· Beto Montelongo, barely 20, who was just learning carpentry.
· Kenny Cruz, walking just two blocks from his school, who turned when his friend told him to duck.
But there is a difference now.
Often the stories back then were routinely buried in the back of the newspaper. Now the stories receive national attention. The Chicago media are covering — and so are the New York Times, the Guardian, The Atlantic, the New Yorker and the Washington Post. And, yes, we have caught the President’s attention.
Only one thing hasn’t changed. Most of the coverage still happens the same way it did 20 years ago.
We read stories reported as though we at war. We give the numbers. We tell a little about the people who were shot. Sometimes there is a beautifully written, heart-wrenching narrative about the last hours of a young man or woman’s life. But all too often, readers are left with the idea that violence is normal in these neighborhoods. Because that is the only picture we see of Englewood, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale or one of the other neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides where most of the shootings occur.
All too often, we don’t say much about the deep and complicated causes of the blood in the streets. We see pictures of people crying, their arms stretched out in front of yellow crime scene police tape. It reinforces what we want to believe — that all these neighborhoods where violence is commonplace are very different from where we live. And these people are very different from us. Belief in those differences means we can believe that other people’s children are vulnerable. Ours are safe. And all too often, the biggest difference we see in stories and pictures is race. When really, the difference is economic inequality and the problems that come when you are living in a neighborhood without resources: poverty, unemployment, inadequate and high-priced housing, lack of affordable day care, no mental health services and poor performing educational institutions with no resources.
There is no box with each story warning us not to prejudge. No disclaimer that says:
“Violence is a symptom, not the root cause of the problems in low-income Chicago neighborhoods. Public health research shows us that children are more vulnerable to violence if they born into situations with specific risk factors. Places such as the Strengthening Chicago’s Youth program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago provide evidence-based intervention and prevention strategies that could help turn the tide of youth violence in Chicago or any urban area.”
If we are trying to tell the full story, rather than giving vague impressions and covering half-truths, isn’t that part of a journalist’s job?
We seem to be covering war, not neighborhoods and people. As my good friend and former Public Narrative colleague Stephen Franklin teaches:
When you are covering a war, you report the statistics — those shot, those wounded. You also talk to the generals — the police superintendent and the mayor. You often don’t have time to deal with much more.
But is that the full story?
Franklin teaches that to cover violence in urban neighborhoods, journalists must go beyond war coverage to practicing “peace journalism” — as outlined by Steve Youngblood of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University.
I admit it sounds like a new and strange strategy. But, it’s not. In fact, it’s based on sound journalism — the idea that a journalist should always work to get ahead of the story:
- Don’t put yourself in the story by being provocative.
- Don’t promote or buy into stereotypes.
- Don’t look for over simplify good vs. evil narratives.
- Don’t take the official propaganda as the ultimate word. Instead “seek facts from all sides.”
Peace journalism reminds reporters to be careful about language and images, so as not to do harm and inflame a situation. It also asks reporters to provide depth and context on issues, giving “voice to the voiceless.”
Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like the Society for Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics, doesn’t it?
It’s not that Chicago is devoid of this type of reporting. Not at all. Public Narrative has for more than 20 years been honoring those who get it right. And please join us on March 9 for the next Studs Terkel Awards
I could not agree more, following in Franklin’s footsteps, it’s what we teach here at Public Narrative.
It’s not that Chicago is devoid of this type of reporting. Not at all. Public Narrative has for more than 20 years been honoring those who get it right (you can join us in celebrating them on March 9 for the next Studs Terkel Awards). But there’s certainly not enough of peace journalism reporting to counteract the reputation Chicago has globally.
It’s not a huge change in thinking. In fact, it’s rather a small tweak. But if more of us were taking this approach, there might be more collaboration, more partnerships — and a better push forward toward offering possible solutions to these complicated problems.
Susy Schultz is a president of Public Narrative housed at Columbia College Chicago.