The Images That Punish Us

By La Risa Lynch

Derrion Albert’s death made international headlines in 2009 when the Fenger High School student was beaten by a gang of teens in Roseland.

But a story that got little headlines was the collateral damage the media coverage had on the community.

Communities like Roseland, Englewood and Austin are often penned in the media as violent and dangerous places, a stereotype with lasting effects on youth

T-awannda Piper, of Demoiselle 2 Femme, a girls mentoring group, recalled an 18-year-old student, who felt that her efforts to get into colleges suffered because she attended Fenger High School.

“Think about that when you are doing your story,” Piper told a meeting of journalists, anti-violence experts and community group this week, noting that the student is now at University of Illinois. “I think it is important for those who are in media to evaluate their approach in covering a story.”

She urged media to balance reporting about violence with information on organizations doing good in communities or list resources for youth.

And she was not alone in her plea for more informed and thoughtful coverage of urban violence. Social service providers and attending the June 11th panel discussion on violence and the media, sponsored by the Community Media Workshop, shared her concerns.

Chicago had 506 murders last year, a 26 percent increase over 2011 figures. But using numbers like those doesn’t really tell the whole story, said Suzanne McLone, of Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

The hospital helped created Strengthening Chicago’s Youth (SCY), an effort linking over 160 groups that deal with youth violence and SCY co-sponsored the gathering.

“When there is a number sometimes it hides the great work programs are doing in the community,” said McClone

Sensationalist journalism that only focuses on numbers also dehumanizes violence and its victims making violence routine, said Dr. Virginia Bishop, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

How the Media Stereotypes

“When I look at TV now, when someone gets shot in Hype Park or Lake Forest, they always interview a person that says ‘I don’t know how this could have happened here.’ But when they talk about … Austin or Humboldt Park, the media portrayal is this is just the way it is,” Bishop said.

To strike a balance, she said media should write positive stories for every shooting they cover.

Candace Coleman, of Access Living, a disability advocacy group, expressed concern about the disparity in covering people with disabilities.

She said there are not a lot of positive images of people with disabilities in the media. And coverage, Coleman added, focuses on crime perpetrated by people with disabilities rather than the lack of services for them.

“They want to blame the disability,” Coleman said, noting that people with disabilities are fighting against violence, implementing anti-bully and restorative justice programs.

“Everybody who has a mental illness doesn’t want to harm people and that story needs to be told,” she added.

The media wasn’t the only entity the panelists were holding feet to the fire. They were also critical of the mayor’s office when it comes to funding violence prevention and intervention programs.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embarked on a campaign to raise $50 million to add to funds for violence and prevention programs. Some of the funding will go for in-school services with another smaller pot of money for community based programs.

Prevention versus Detention

 The initiative marks a shift in funding, says Felicia Davis, executive director of the Mayor’s office of Public Engagement. The city, she explained, has lately been pouring added resources into the “response side” of violence prevention, which are detention, incarceration and police.

To be effective, there needs to be greater investment in prevention and intervention strategies, said Davis, a former Chicago police officer and Kendall College official.

“Originally the intent was lets see if we can pull more money out of response and put it into prevention/intervention. That was not happening quick enough,” she said. “So the goal was to raise $50 million to target specifically intervention/prevention over these next five years so we can push the needle…”

Allocating the money is a good start, but McLone encouraged the city to not to fund the same cookie cutter programs. She said organizations that focus on education reduce violence; groups that start community gardens impact violence and even nutritional programs to some extent affect violence.

Coleman challenged organizations to work together to strengthen programs and to stretch dollars, a point welcomed by many of the organizations.

“You have all this money that go into these programs, but once the money is gone, then you have the community lost trying to figure out where these people should go,” she said.

Youth should be at the table not just academicians when the city creates the funding criteria for these programs, Bishop added.

“The people who know how to write grants … and the people who know the policy are not necessarily the people that know how to get to the kids and help them,” she said.



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