Chicago TV news ignores ‘cheap’ murders

Analysis

TV news outlets in Chicago often ignore the “cheap” murders that won’t boost ratings.

Such non-reporting leaves viewers with a skewed narrative of crime in a city that too often frames victims as the bad guys, says Robert Jordan, the longtime Emmy-winning reporter and weekend anchor for WGN-TV in Chicago.

“The effort is phony, contrived and manufactured to gain viewers,” he says of TV coverage of crime, a sobering assessment from a man who spent more than four decades in the business before he retired in 2016.

In his recently released book, Murder in the News: An Inside Look at How Television Covers Crime, Jordan offers an insider’s view of the decisions TV outlets make when covering crime in a city that has become a political talking-point about gun laws, policing and race.

President Donald Trump repeatedly references the city, often using incorrect information, to criticize the heavily Democratic stronghold and its officials.

“Chicago has become known as a murder capital of the United States, which it isn’t,” says Andrew Rojecki, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studied media. “So that’s exaggerated. But then it becomes a symbol, and it’s a very easy target, especially when the city didn’t support you as president. It just becomes a very handy sort of club mentality and it does trade on a lack of information and it falls on ears that are receptive.”

It’s not fair to blame all TV news or reporters for the narrative that has emerged about Chicago, and Jordan does not. Still, he points the finger at competition for shrinking viewers, which has distorted what is really happening in the city. “We roll in at the last minute when people are crying or heartbroken,” Jordan says in an interview. “It’s all aftermath. It’s all emotion and material that doesn’t tell us anything. We don’t learn anything from watching TV anymore.”

Breaking news

Reporters chase each other to fill broadcast time on breaking news stories even when there isn’t anything new to say, he writes. Often, stories involving people of color are ignored. In his book he recalls how more than 700 people died in a heat wave in 1995, more than twice as many people who died during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But because the victims were mostly poor and black, the story was underreported. “Since the Chicago media slept through this disaster, city officials knew they had dodged a public relations bullet,” he writes.

Murder in the News may contain nothing particularly revelatory for those working in television news. But the book, published in November by Prometheus, is a refreshingly candid account from a respected and recognizable Chicago TV newsman who estimates he has covered thousands of murders during his career. “It “feels like I’ve been waiting for a broadcast person to say this stuff for a long time,” says Darryl Holliday, co-founder and editorial director of the City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the city’s South Side.

For the book’s research, Jordan surveyed assignment editors and producers in Chicago, most of whom talked to him on the condition of remaining anonymous. From them, Jordan knows he is not alone in his frustration. “We feel helpless to change it,” he said. “We know deep down that money runs the business. Our jobs are predicated on the news station doing well. We don’t like to admit it.”

Several news directors contacted for this story declined to comment or privately agreed with Jordan’s assessment, but did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of their stations.

“TV news really gives a surface coverage of crime,” says Ava Thompson Greenwell, who teaches broadcast journalism at Northwestern University. “The assignment desk is looking at what’s on the scanner, and this is what drives the coverage. It’s very easy to send a crew to where the latest police car is, the crime tape, the parents and relatives crying over death or injury. I’m not saying those stories shouldn’t be covered. But it’s very surface coverage and doesn’t look at the root cause.”

Greenwell says when TV coverage makes a point to call a crime “gang-related,” it gives viewers an excuse to “tune out.”

“Those kinds of quick descriptions and summaries of this kind of crime does a disservice,” she says.

TV news stereotypes

Rojecki, who co-authored a book about race and media and developed an index from it, says the stereotypes perpetuated by TV news coverage in Chicago can be really damaging.

“White public opinion on blacks is driven in part by this concept of racial threat,” he says. “Whites feel that a large group of publics in close proximity threaten their economic position, their political position, and probably in the last 20 years, their safety. There has been so much emphasis on crime.”

A daily diet of news that is superficial contributes to this, he says. “The more you are exposed to that and the more segregated life is, the more likely you are to reinforce the attitude of the very conditions that produce them.”

The problem is that superficial sells.

It’s almost 4 p.m on a cold January afternoon earlier this year just outside of Chicago. Jordan doesn’t turn on the TV at his Lincolnwood home, but he speculates that weather will lead the news. There are snow flurries outside and the city’s stations are engaged in a “weather war” at the moment, he says. “The competition is fierce over the crumbs of an audience,” noting that competition drives the chase for crime coverage, too.

The night before, Jordan and his wife saw the movie The Post, about the first female publisher of a major newspaper and the Washington Post’s efforts to publish the classified Pentagon Papers. Jordan keeps a copy of the Pentagon Papers in a box somewhere, he says. Jordan is a Chicago legend. The Georgia native, who got his start as a booth announcer in Nashville, has covered some of the biggest stories in Chicago: the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the election of former President Barack Obama and his 2008 Grant Park victory speech and the election and then death of Mayor Harold Washington. He also says he missed one of the biggest stories in Chicago.

He describes how he heard rumors about a Chicago police detective named Jon Burge who was really good at getting confessions from the “bad guys.” It turns out Burge, who rose through the ranks to become commander, was torturing the accused and directing his detectives to do the same. The city of Chicago has paid alleged victims of Burge detectives more than $57 million and the abuse is now part of a required history lesson in Chicago Public Schools.

“I believed the official sources,” he says, shaking his head. “We all did.”

At a panel discussion at Columbia College Chicago in April, Jordan called the missed Burge story “my biggest regret in my career.”

“Television stations used to believe the public information officers, the press releases that came out, and that was the way it was done in those days,” he says. “Today we don’t do that. We listen to the viewers.”

What we don’t see on TV

Tonika Johnson, a community activist and street photographer on the South Side of Chicago, has been trying to counter TV coverage with her own images of everyday life from her community. She asks a recurring question when she posts images to Instagram of a child in a laundromat or a mother taking her child to school. “Is this what you don’t see on television, wonder why?”

“We have to admit and discuss that this constant reporting on violent crime in black communities in Chicago negatively affects how people are treated,“ Johnson says. “It has a very real and direct impact.”

For Jordan, one of the solutions is for newsroom staff to be more diverse, with reporters, producers and editors who have personal connections to the neighborhoods that often get ignored. Johnson has impact in Englewood, has the ability to influence the conversation, because he lives there.

He says news stations need to slow down and begin to look more closely at the neighborhoods. For example, a station could set up a storefront in each of Chicago’s neighborhoods, spending a minimum of three months there to invite people in to talk and to listen, really listen, to what they had to say, an idea that likely would be prohibitively expensive but could be done on a smaller scale.

This would make the stations visible in the community — a regular part of them — instead of just sending reporters and cameras when there is a crime story, Jordan says. It would resonate with viewers and show the commitment to understanding better why crimes are occurring and what the impact is on the people living there.

“That’s our responsibility as journalists,” he says. “We claim we know what is going on in Chicago, but we don’t.”