What happens when we blow off a killing with a few graphs in the paper? Does that cheapen life here? And what does it say about the news media’s commitment to telling us about our lives and what’s happening? An excellent series running now on WBEZ raises these question. Questions we journalists have been living with for some time in Chicago.
Here’s a guide that you might consider when you do your reporting, editing, or simply when you are taking in the news. We’ll go over this guide at our workshop covering youth violence on Saturday, August 6th from 9 am to noon at the National Museum of Mexican Art.
But this is a work in progress. We’ll keep adding to it. And hopefully you’ll tell what what more we need to say, and, you’ll also give your reporting to share with others.
Steve, 312 369 7782, firstname.lastname@example.org
Covering youth crime: Sources and advice
This was produced by the We Are Not Alone/ No Estamos Solos campaign, an effort to improve the reporting on crime in the black and Latino news media and communities and all of Chicago.
Suggestions for better coverage of youth violence:
- Encourage young people to speak for themselves, promoting youth-created media to give them the opportunity to do so. Agencies that provide media training for their leaders, for example, can include young people served by the agency as spokespersons.
- Demand more context in reporting about crime. Ask newspapers and broadcast outlets to devote more resources to covering crime, drawing on sources other than police and prosecutors to look for root causes and to connect individual events to larger public policies. For example, public health sources can help interpret data and speak about prevention efforts. When reporters and editors do a good job, tell them.
- Encourage communities to ask the deeper questions: who benefits when young people are portrayed as selfish, irresponsible, and violent?
- Demand that other youth issues—health care, education, employment, leadership, youth organizing, child abuse—receive as much coverage as crime.
- Be a critical consumer of news coverage. Don’t be swayed by sensationalistic reporting. Challenge the myths of rising youth crime and school violence. Examine statistics and determine the facts. If you see crime coverage that draws erroneous conclusions, speak out.
- Tap into the potential of youth as a political force. Youth organizing can help youth create a critical mass to challenge media stereotypes.
- Look for solutions other than incarceration for youth crime. Journalists covering youth crime have an opportunity to publicize such solutions by interviewing youth advocates and even youth themselves.
2. Reporting on the social and health effects of urban violence without falling victim to stereotypes or clichés is just plain hard. In Thursday’s post, I looked at some of the history and context for looking at violence as a public health issue. In this post, some veteran journalists share their tips for reporting on violence and the communities where it is pervasive.
- Find a guide. They can be social workers, health workers, community activists, even mothers, says journalist Celeste Fremon, who has spent years reporting on gangs and violence in Los Angeles, most notably in her book about Homeboy Industries.
- “Find a guide, and then you’ll gradually form relationships of your own,” Fremon told our National Health Journalism Fellows at a recent seminar in Los Angeles.
- “You go to the community’s mothers. You talk to the kid on the bike who’s circling the crime scene. You go to the experts who are community members. They’re so rarely asked, they’ll give you a narrative if you’re willing to sit down and talk to them,” Fremon said. “I use what I’ve got – I’m middle aged white lady but I’m a mom. I tell my students, bring who you are. That interest you express in them is huge.”
- Do not use law enforcement members as your guides to a community, at least at first. Distrust of police will extend to you, said Michael Robinson Chavez, a Los Angeles Times photojournalist who worked with reporter Scott Gold on the Times series “Promise and Peril in South L.A.,” which touched on this long-troubled community’s health challenges. “We had to be really cognizant of what part of the city we were in and who we were with,” Chavez said.
- Spend considerable time in the community. “Don’t just come for a quote for your story,” says Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, a youth leadership group in Oakland. Chavez agreed,
- saying that the time he and Gold were given to work on the Times series was invaluable in convincing people that they wanted to do more than stereotype their community.
- Scrutinize youth services and violence prevention organizations with the same rigor you would use to report on the finances and effectiveness of other institutions on your beat. Too often, journalists give these nonprofits a free ride. In fact, they compete fiercely for limited funds and aren’t always effective as they say they are, said Patrick Boyle, editor of the trade publication Youth Today, which covers the youth services field. Here’s a good example of this kind of scrutiny, from the Times series.
- Boyle requires reporters to request IRS 990 forms, which provide information about expenses, income and salaries, for all organizations they cover. Often, the reporters encounter resistance. “These are do-gooder organizations. You start asking hard questions and you get a reaction: ‘we’re not used to this.’ We ask for 990s because you never know.”
- Boyle also urges reporters to examine these organizations’ results. “With anti-gun, youth violence prevention, drug prevention, gang prevention work, it’s extremely difficult for these programs to show measurable effect. Their subjects move around, very mobile, they move away, go to jail, drop out of school.”
- “Ask for the measurement tool. And ask about who’s doing the measuring,” Boyle said. In many cases, the social service organizations are poorly evaluating their work or not evaluating it seriously at all.
- Expand sources beyond police and courts. Health departments and coroner’s offices are good sources of homicide data. Hospital admission data, though not always available for a breaking story, can help reporters put crime and its consequences in perspective. Other social agency employees and community residents have information about neighborhood life pertinent to crime stories. Reporters need to cultivate these sources the same way they cultivate the local beat cops.
- Provide context for crime in regular reporting. In almost every area of news — sports, business, politics, entertainment — general information is integrated with spot reports and the news makes sense of events for audiences by placing them in a larger context, if not in the same article, then with additional graphics or sidebars or standing reports. Stories on crime and youth could be treated with equal depth and breadth.
- Bolster enterprise and increase investigative journalism.This recommendation requires adequate investment in the practice of journalism. Reporters need the time and resources to cultivate sources, investigate leads, and identify the connections between seemingly isolated events. They need support for understanding the patterns in a community so that they recognize when an event is important and interesting, not just interesting.
- Balance stories about crime and youth with stories about youth in general.News organizations must pull back their lens to get a broader picture of what else young people are doing. When it comes to youth, violence is as prominent in the news as education. This exaggerates the rate of violence, particularly since 52 million young people go to school but only 125,000 are arrested for violent crimes each year. What issues affect them? What other newsworthy activities are they engaged in?
- Conduct periodic audits of news content and share the results with readers and viewers.Newspapers and television newsrooms should periodically pause to examine their content. An audit would look beyond the evening ratings and sales numbers to ask the question: If the only information our readers and viewers got was from our news, what would they know about youth and violence? What wouldn’t they know? Assess whether the news gives readers and viewers enough information to deliberate their community’s problems.
- Examine the story selection process, and use restraint when necessary.Who qualifies as newsworthy in the newsroom? Who doesn’t? Of course, news outlets cannot stop telling unusual stories, but they need not tell every one, thereby overwhelming readers and viewers with a cumulative misrepresentation, especially when it means there is not room for less sensational but more important news. Is perceived victim “worthiness” the unspoken criteria for whether a murder is selected for the news? Reporters should ask themselves: Who qualifies as a worthy victim in my newsroom? Who doesn’t? If reporters limit themselves to reporting what just happened without considering how that crime fits into larger patterns, the news is doomed to be distorted.
Focus your reporting
- Examine crime statistics.
Narrow the numbers to tell stories about communities, about kinds of youth, about kinds of weapons.
- Cover violence as a public health issue.
- What forces are most important?
- Schools, housing, jobs, immigration-related issues?
- Availability of guns? Role of gangs and neighborhoods, police, courts
- Police, Courts and Prisons
- What changes in how they treat youths and crime?
- How do they operate? What do experts say?
- How well are they funded and staffed?
- Narrow your reporting to describe individuals and scenes
- Tell complex stories with one or two individuals in these systems
- Take your readers, audience, listeners to witness and see how police, courts, juvenile detention facilities operate. Stay on one angle and follow-up frequently.
- Create a narrative that makes the story personal and human.
- Tell the story of one event through different eyes.
- Describe the life on a street – at a school – location where youth crime occurred
- Follow one person through the system
- Describe the trauma created for the victims and those caught up in the crime.
- Use google maps and ushahidi (http://www.ushahidi.com
- or see click fix http://www.seeclickfix.com/ digital tools) to chart crime-related issues to visualize the impact of the issue on a community.
- Tell us about the community and what problems youths face: poverty, unemployment, school drop-out rates, access to public facilities, access to social work agencies.
- Don’t create despair, overwhelming situations or leave your community without offering solutions.
- Who are the heroes in the hood?
- What programs seem to work?
- What are other communities, cities, states doing?
- How do organizations cooperate? What is their funding? What do they say about their success, failures, expectations?
Examples of stories and reporting strategies
On analyzing the larger issue:
Alex Kotlowitz’ story on CeaseFire, 2008, New York Times, notice how he goes back forth from scenes to individuals to bigger questions and how he doesn’t answer the major question.
Dealing with victims of violence and telling their stories
From the Dart Center at Columbia University, +1 (212) 854 8056
Covering Children and Trauma
Interviewing Children from the Dart Center
When Crime is Just the Beginning of the Story, from Nieman Reports
On Gangs and strategies to stop violence
from reporter Julie Reynold, on CeaseFire’s impact nationally
An evalution of CeaseFire
A reporting and documentary on the gangs of Central California
See the Interrupters, the movie on CeaseFire. What reporting tools, suggestions, insights can you glean from this movie?
On the role of the media in covering violence
On the stereotypes the media can provide
From Joyce Foundation and John Jay College Center on Crime Reporting
On Gun violence:
Their conference on gun violence and links:
Check out the power point (in the conference) from U of Chicago expert on violence on what anti-gun strategies work with youth. What strategies can you document in your neighborhood and community?
See also the Crime Report for story ideas, approaches, links
For tips and guidance on covering crime:
Covering Crime and Justice
The Center for Media, Crime and Justice
As part of their series they interviewed someone in prison for a gun crime. Notice how it gives a face to the situation:
And here’s the reporters notebook on how he went about doing the story. Notice the problems but also his findings and how he moves on:
This is a series from the Grand Rapids Press on gun crimes. Notice the use of a map to show where the crimes occur and his use of police and other sources to detail the situation. Consider tagging along with police in a high crime area to describe how they react to what they face.
This story looks at CHA housing and gun violence and the impact of the teardown of the housing units on crime.
This Chicago Reporter story raises questions about sending youths involved in gun crimes to prison and also asks why there are cases where no guns are indicated despite the convictions.
From the Detroit Free Press, 2004, Crime in Detroit, 7 part series, One of the stories looks at how a family tries to solve a crime on its own; Another gives a very personal look at a homicide detective’s day – notice the literary, almost novel like writing.
This is an excellent, in-depth study by the Philadelphia Inquirer of school violence. Notice how their webpage includes studies and reports, blogs and reader reactions and how they update the articles. They also include videos from school security cameras and provide students and teachers’ views on the violence.
The Path of a Bullet, Long Beach Press Telegram, 1999, here they mix a cinematic, compelling portrait of the people touched by crime by a theme about the cost of a 22 cent bullet. Again, an innovative approach that bring you to the scene. http://dartcenter.org/content/path-bullet-1
This is the profile of an emotionally trouble youth. The message likewise is how the system failed to help him and failed to keep account of his problem.
Documenting youth violence in photos and videos;
From the Dart Center
The Spanish-language version of the Dart Center’s 40-page guide to help journalists, photojournalists and editors report on violence while protecting both victims and themselves.
A Spanish-language tip sheet on covering disasters.
A Spanish-language tip sheet on interviewing victims and families.
A Spanish translation of “Interviewing Children” by Ruth Teichroeb, a tip sheet on protecting children from further trauma when interviewing them about a traumatic event.
Ser Testigo: Periodistas y Fotografos Respondan a la Tragedia
A Spanish-language version of a multimedia presentation for journalism educators on how collaboration with photographs’ “protagonists” is the key to making powerful and responsible images.
Why better media coverage matters
1. Public perception of violent crime is largely a function of media coverage of crime, especially youth crime. Many adults have little contact with youth and most never directly experience youth crime. This leaves them to base their impressions of youth and youth crime on external sources such as word of mouth, public officials, and, in particular, the media.
2. Media coverage does not reflect a sufficiently thorough or, in many cases, accurate understanding of youth or youth crime. Most stories about young people depict them as troubled or, more likely, as trouble for society; stories about youth typically associate youth with violence, whether as victim or instigator. Far too much coverage focuses on infrequent but heinous cases, without any context.
From the Nieman Reports:
This issue is devoted to covering violence and children. And this article in the issue offers good recommendations on what the news media can do differently.
Here are the recommendations from one article from this report:
- Create a local violence database that lists violent incidents accumulated from a variety of sources, including law enforcement (police reports), criminal justice (coroner reports, restraining orders) and public health (hospital discharge data, emergency room data). Link this to a geographic information system component so that reporters and editors can more easily identify crime trends. Include a story-mapping component in the database so that reporters and editors can see, at a glance, what stories have been published in which categories.
- Hire a violence reporter who is trained in computer-assisted reporting, has a science or medical reporting background, and is familiar with epidemiological methods.
- Establish a violence-prevention reporting team with an editor, violence reporter, police reporter and features reporter. Assign part-time to this team a medical/health reporter, science/technology reporter, education reporter, political reporter, business reporter and graphics editor.
- Organize the team around the violence-prevention reporter who monitors the local, state and national databases as well as public health research. This reporter presents the information to the team, which decides on how to develop stories based on the data. The police and court reporters continue to do their traditional coverage, augmented by what they can retrieve from the database with the help of the violence reporter.
- Eliminate short briefs. They offer no context or useful information.
- For every violent incident reported (high-profile or common), add information as text or a graphic to put each reported violent incident in the context of local violent incidents. Include relevant risk factors, such as the type of weapon, relationship of victim to perpetrator, whether alcohol or other drugs were involved, whether the perpetrator and victim have families. Include as much initial information about consequences as possible: What happens to the families? What is the cost of incarceration?
- For each violent incident reported, do follow-up stories to address the consequences of the violent incident that affect the immediate families and the community. Include stories and information drawn from public health resources, in addition to law enforcement and criminal justice sources. Add information about economic and psychological consequences of crime to family and community as well as information about public health research into particular violence issues. These stories would appear in the weekly violence newspaper section, or as a feature on television news.
- Newspapers can publish a weekly page that focuses on solutions to crime and violence. This weekly page would include:
- A column about the week’s most prominent violent incidents, placing them in perspective and explaining why they received the most attention. This can be written by the newspaper’s ombudsman or violence reporter, and in it the writer can also explain how the community is working to prevent such crimes, if they are preventable, or why they are not. If the community is not working to reduce preventable crimes, find a community that has had success doing so.
- A graphic status report on violent crime within the community and how this compares with the national goals set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or local goals set by the community.
- A feature written by the violence, medical/health, science/technology, political, education or social services reporters that focuses on one aspect of a particular type of violence. The story would include solutions, attempted solutions, or the status of previously reported attempted solutions to prevent violence in the community.
- Design a local morbidity and mortality section for the news organization’s Web site. Make the newspaper’s local violence database available. Report deaths and injuries from all causes. Include obituaries. This becomes not only a vehicle for reporting on violence, but the data reviewed and included in this section would also enable reporters to spot trends in other types of death, including diseases such as hepatitis, AIDS, cancer, stroke, etc., and to do stories if the changes are statistically significant.
- Publish an annual report on “health of the community” to compare rates of violence in the community with national goals to reduce rates of violence in “Healthy People 2000,” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
From the Casey report on youths, crime and news media
Steve Franklin, Community Media Workshop, office 312 369 7782, cell 773 595 8667,