Subtle but distinct differences in Pendleton shooting coverage

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

Before the nation heard of Hadiya Pendleton, the grim realities of Chicago’s gun violence had been largely overlooked by United States media outlets.

Not anymore.

The 15-year-old’s tragic shooting death in Chicago Jan. 29 highlighted the impact gangs and gun violence have had on the nation’s third-largest city. News coverage revealed that Pendleton, a high school honors student and majorette, had performed with her school’s band in the parade at President Obama’s inauguration just a week earlier. With that angle, the story immediately gained prominence over other similar incidents involving innocent teens being caught in gang members’ crosshairs.

The subsequent news coverage of one mainstream daily newspaper and an ethnic weekly in the Windy City framed the event differently. The differences were subtle but distinct.

The Chicago Tribune had 10 stories listed on its website from Jan. 30 through Feb. 21 that dealt with the events surrounding Pendleton’s death, with multiple writers’ bylines appearing on the articles. The historically African-American weekly newspaper the Chicago Defender, which was founded in 1905, had a half-dozen staff-written reports (the majority by managing editor Rhonda Gillespie, with others by Kalia Abiade) combined with more articles from the Associated Press that covered the story as it developed.

The Defender’s staff and wire coverage mixture makes sense in the context of recent staff cuts. “State of the News Media 2013,” an annual report on journalism in the United States recently released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the Defender had cut its staff to four, laying off two editors  “because of reduced advertising.”

The difference between the two publications was in how information was presented to their respective audiences. For the Tribune, that meant including a national angle to its stories, while the Defender’s coverage focused much more on its surrounding community.

When news first broke about Pendleton’s death, the Tribune surveyed the developing story with an eye on the national furor over her senseless death. A story posted Jan. 31 on the Tribune’s website and written by Jennifer Delgado, Bridget Doyle and Jeremy Gorner noted that outrage over the King College Prep sophomore’s death was spreading “from City Hall to the White House.” The report, headlined “Teen girl’s killing ignites widespread outrage: ‘Why did it have to be her’,” contained quotes from President Obama and his spokesman, Jay Carney, as well as from Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy and the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel. All of these officials are instantly recognizable by Chicago residents, and all but McCarthy are well-known to citizens across the country. The story noted that McCarthy “stressed that neither Hadiya nor anyone in the group she was with were involved with gangs. But it appears the gunman mistook the students for members of a rival gang.”

The Defender’s Feb. 6-12 weekly edition, meanwhile, used its cover page to feature photographs of five black Chicago youths who had been killed in similar fashion, with Pendleton’s photo prominent in the center of the page. The focus for the Defender was the impact that each of these youths’ deaths – and the gun- and gang-related violence that accompanied them – has had on the African-American community within Chicago. The cover was a lead-in to an editorial on page 10 that carried the headline “Gang members have no turf.” The editorial took issue with some people who said that Pendleton was in the wrong place at the wrong time, noting that she was “in a city park decompressing after a day of final exams at school. It’s what the park is for, recreation and temporary retreat.” The same issue also contained a story, written by staff writer Rhonda Gillespie, headlined “Teen’s death a call for action.” In it, Gillespie wrote of other mothers who have lost children to gang violence, and noted that Pendleton’s death “locally reignited many calls that law enforcement, faith and community leaders, and other victims’ families have been making for gun violence to stop and for Obama to come to Chicago and speak out on the issue.”

Another story by Gillespie, posted online Feb. 9, noted that “a who’s who of Chicago notables attended the (visitation) service, the first in a two-day final farewell to the teen. Among the attendees were City Treasurer Stephanie Neely and Rev. Jesse Jackson.” Both Neely and Jackson are prominent members of the city’s African-American community.

Over the course of the next few weeks, both newspapers continued to follow developments in the story, including a $40,000 reward on information on who had done the shooting followed by the arrest of two suspects in Pendleton’s shooting death. In a Feb. 12 story posted online under the headline “2 charged with murder in Hadiya Pendleton slaying,” the Tribune’s Jason Meisner and Gorner reported that “two reputed gang members were out for revenge from a previous shooting when they opened fire on a group of students in a South Side park last month, killing 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in a heartbreaking case that has brought national attention to Chicago’s rampant gun violence, police said.”

The Defender and the Tribune next reported on the news of first lady Michelle Obama attending Pendleton’s funeral. The Defender’s Gillespie quoted Pendleton’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, in a Feb. 7 story as saying: “I feel supported. When (Michelle Obama) gets finished with being the first lady, she’s still a parent.”

Both publications also noted that the slain teen’s parents were the guests of the president and first lady in Washington during President Obama’s State of the Union speech, in which he said: “Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.”

On March 7, a story written by Tribune reporter Kim Geiger and posted on the paper’s website carried the headline “Gun trafficking bill carrying Hadiya Pendleton’s name clears Senate panel.” The story noted that the bill was “co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk of Illinois,” and that it “contains a section named for Pendleton and Nyasia Pryear-Yard, a teenage victim of gun violence in New York.” (Pryear-Yard was a 17-year-old Catholic honors student who was shot and killed in January while dancing at a Brooklyn teen club.)

The Defender’s coverage on March 8, meanwhile, focused instead on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois’ 1st Congressional District, and his introduction of “the Hadiya Pendleton and Nyasia Pryear-Yard Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 to limit straw purchases or firearms and reduce illegal trafficking of firearms across state lines.” Rush, who is African-American, gained national notoriety in 2012 when he wore a gray hoodie and sunglasses on the House floor as he gave a speech urging a full investigation into the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

“Hadiya’s death will not be in vain,” the Defender story quoted Rush as saying Feb. 9 outside the church where her funeral took place.

In an interview conducted by the Tribune’s Dahleen Glanton, with Pendleton’s parents, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton said that “my life has been forever changed of what someone else did. I’m not going to be extremely political, but if I can help someone else not go through what we’ve gone through, then I have to do what I can. These are the cards we have been dealt. If these are the shoes I need to walk in, I don’t mind walking in them.”

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