Chicago murder coverage isn’t stopping the bullets

CHICAGO – Back in the early ’70s, as a cub working off the overnight city desk at the Chicago Tribune, you learned fast that all murders were not equal.

Sure, all were listed methodically on the deputy superintendent’s logbook at the old police headquarters at 11th and State streets. But while killings on the city’s predominantly white North Side were almost always pursued by our small band of nocturnal newsmen, the more numerous homicides in the black neighborhoods of the South and West Sides most often were ignored.

There was even a winking code word for the latter category. They were “blue.” Blue, as in “cheap domestic,” where a drunken live-in boyfriend kills his common-law mate. Blue, as in someone shot in the face after a street-corner dice game gone awry.

Judging by how the other four daily newspapers (yes, four!) covered and displayed their homicides, it’s safe to assume the same double standard applied.

This practice was, of course, racially and morally indefensible. And by the end of that decade – a decade of enormous change in newsroom cultures across the country—a more race-neutral standard applied. Oh, sure, a juicy society murder on the city’s Gold Coast still got top billing. But space was made for everyone in those ubiquitous Monday roundups of weekend mayhem, especially if the victim was a sympathetic innocent.

The reasoning behind this sea change was, and still is, altogether sound. All lives have value, and only by recording the circumstances of each tragedy do we begin to understand the patterns of neglect that underlay the violence … and potential ways the killing might be stopped.

Fast forward to 2013 and, I would argue, a very different set of ethical questions now confronting editors.

Last year there were 506 homicides in Chicago, more than the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in Afghanistan. This past January’s toll of 43 does not bode well for 2013.

Most of the murdered were under age 24, shot with handguns, nearly within a handful of black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Fully a third of the victims were determined by police to be not the intended target of the shooter. They were simply in the wrong place – a car, a front porch, a gathering of friends – at the wrong time and unluckily close to the intended target.

A pattern has developed in which Chicago media focus on these innocent victims, on their grief-stricken families, on friends building curbside memorials, on their wakes and on their funerals. In January the full front-page, top-of-the-newscast treatment was given, day-after-day, to the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, an innocent who the week before was a majorette in President Barack Obama’s inaugural parade. In March it was baby Jonylah Watkins, a 6-month-old shot in the front seat of a parked minivan while in the lap of her father, an alleged gang-banger with a lengthy police rap sheet.

News columnists and editorial writers daily pile on their outrage, and almost daily stories with headlines such as “Bloodbath in Chicago” circle the globe via the Huffington Post, New York Times, BBC and others.

All of which begs – or should beg – the question of whether this approach to covering lethal urban violence is doing any good … or even doing more harm than good.

No responsible journalist seeks a return to the days of spiking “blue” murders from the wrong side of town. But consider the following:

  • Blanket coverage of lethal violence in minority neighborhoods is not balanced by an equal number of prominently played stories of good things achieved in those neighborhoods by the many good people who live there.
  • Negative perceptions about violence and personal safety are a major driver of the “white flight,” racial resegregation and neighborhood decay that have plagued U.S. metropolitan areas over the past half-century. Chicago has fared better than most but still has lost a quarter of its population since 1960 as middle-class families of all races continue to move out, albeit for many reasons.
  • Despite all the ink and airtime devoted to the killings, next to nothing has been accomplished – nationally or locally – in the way of more effective gun control, police tactics or provision of social services capable of solving the problem.

Then again, veteran Chicago editors and journalists who have struggled with these issues argue it’s not the amount of coverage that’s the problem … but the type.

Jack Fuller, a former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune who has written extensively on newsroom ethics, complains too much coverage focuses on weeping and wailing and not enough on root causes and criminal logistics.

Instead of bombarding the public with “isn’t that awful” stories, Fuller argues, “we need to go deeper into what’s behind it – the social pathologies, the illegal purchase of guns. Maybe it means our war on drugs has got to end. Take profit out of the system.”

Frank Main, a Pulitzer-winning police reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, agrees there ought to be less hand-wringing and more exposure of what’s behind the shooting.

“The problem is that those stories can be boring,” Main admits. “Anytime the words ‘program’ or ‘social services’ or ‘community involvement’ are anywhere near the top of the story, many readers flip to the sports section.

“The challenge is to ratchet down the coverage of murder victims’ memorials and funerals, and spend more time in neighborhoods, police stations, courts and universities to give context to all this tragedy.”

Laura Washington, a veteran observer of Chicago’s racial dynamic and an op-ed contributor to the Sun-Times, also complains about maudlin stories focusing on grieving relatives and open caskets.

“We should spend more time, space and bytes talking to experts, community leaders and residents about why these murders are occurring, and what can be done to stop them,” she says. “Our reporting is too often one-dimensional and simplistic. The problems are multilayered and complex.”

That sentiment is echoed by William Recktenwald, a journalism instructor at Southern Illinois University and former top investigative reporter at the Tribune. In 1993, he and a team of reporters chronicled in detail every shooting death of a Chicago-area child below the age of 15 in a yearlong series called “Killing Our Children.”

People forget, Recktenwald says, that 20 years ago, when crack cocaine and automatic pistols first appeared on the streets, there were even more killings – a record 932 just during 1992. So is this progress? His police sources tell Recktenwald the numbers would be just as bad now but for advances in trauma medicine.

But the fact that several gunshot victims survive for every one killed points to another reason people ought to care, no matter where they live. Gunshot wounds and deaths cost Americans at least $12 billion a year in court proceedings, insurance costs and hospitalizations paid for by government health programs, according to one recent study. Then there’s the cost of incarcerating a single young murderer – well over $50,000 a year, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“That’s the kind of thing people need to understand.” Recktenwald says. “Reporting about all the memorial candles and teddy bears, that doesn’t change anything.”

As for damage to Chicago’s civic reputation, thoughtful journalists such as Recktenwald, Main, Washington and Fuller seem less concerned.

“I’m still a believer in basic newspapering,” Fuller says. “When something happens, you report it. You cover the hell out of it … that’s how we begin to change the reality.”

Maybe so. But with so little progress achieved and so little in sight, one wonders if the old “publish and be damned” spirit still serves our troubled cities and the people who live in them.

Good riddance to “blue” homicides. But our journalism still needs a better approach.


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