I’m struggling to tell stories.
As an urban-affairs reporter in Chicago, I hesitate over whose story is the best to portray community violence. Chicago is at a crucial moment; all eyes are on the city as it recoils in an unflattering limelight. The perception, no matter what statistics say, no matter the hyperbole, is that you will randomly get shot in Chicago, making it seem as though it’s the most violent place in America. It matters little if this picture is false.
My struggle deepens when the murder victim is a young person. Hadiya Pendleton, the photogenic honors high school student killed days after performing in President Barack Obama’s inauguration, is the latest Chicago symbol. She’s now the fresh face for the need to curtail gun violence and “save our youth.” Many Chicagoans trust that Hadiya’s death will be a moment of truth during the debate over gun control and senseless violence.
And now there’s another shooting death this week that the city is collectively mourning: Six-month-old Jonylah Watkins was killed while her father changed her diaper in a minivan. Jonylah and Hadiya aren’t the first deaths to jolt Chicagoans.
Ben Wilson. Dantrell Davis. Blair Holt. Derrion Albert. The names might ring a bell. They were all young people with promise, good kids doing what they were supposed to be doing. Their lives were cut off by gunfire or other violence while they were walking to or from school or riding public transportation on the way home. Chicagoans rallied around these deaths in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s with the requisite rage.
These killings also garnered sympathy because the young people were considered undeserving of their fate. The stories led the nightly news and were splashed across front pages. I’m saddened that after the rallies, protests and speechifying, I know how the story will unfold. After weeks of soundbites, it’s back to business as usual.
I’ve asked myself another question in the reporting process. What about the youths killed who aren’t “innocent”? The ones who were in the wrong place with the wrong company. The ones who brandished guns, retaliated a death, flirted with gangs, dropped out of school, failed to make the honor roll or didn’t have a photogenic social media picture. The black and brown youths who are anonymous or receive a news brief instead of a news conference.
Is it the news media’s responsibility to give these young adults worthy coverage? Or would their stories dilute the conversation around youth violence?
“In many ways, these kids are victims as well,” said community-violence expert Dexter Voisin, an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. “Schools aren’t graduating kids successfully, and these kids are also the victims of structural violence. These kids are becoming products of their community.”
Violence isn’t happenstance in Chicago. Homicides happen in the same type of neighborhoods around the city -- areas tarnished by poverty and joblessness, where young people with few resources are shackled to their risky blocks. Voisin refers to it as an ecological witch’s brew. When people falter or fail, individuals are blamed for not taking a Calvinistic bootstrap approach instead of society (or even the media) looking at communal reasons, he said.
“Chicago’s geography, history and arrangement in terms of space and racial segregation . . . creates these kind of niches that make youth violence more problematic for us,” Voisin said. “We need to look at the larger context in which people are living.”
That context doesn’t filter into most news stories about violence in Chicago. Timing and space contribute to the restricted coverage in a fast-paced media cycle.
Then I ask myself a different set of questions. Should Chicago’s violence be put into a global context in which our rates pale? Do I sound callous for even suggesting that?
Research in the area of media’s effects on society lists various social science theories. One of them is cultivation theory -- that media shapes how people view the world, and over time, media use will cultivate a particular view of the world within its users. That means television viewers who consume a lot of violence could develop a perception that the world is a lot more violent than it actually is. Couldn’t this theory apply to viewers who watch the daily “who got shot today” news story?
My struggle with telling stories isn’t just personal; the local news corps is powerful and plays a role in how African Americans see themselves in the city. I collectively critique our methods. I frequently engage in a self-check, and hope that asking questions can produce meaningful conversations around violence. I know I’m not the only one.
Meanwhile, a gun-crackdown measure named after Hadiya Pendleton just passed a U.S. Senate panel. The bill is the first piece of gun legislation since last December’s deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
If change is afoot with this bill, then I’ll have to rethink some of my own internal questions and ask another set of questions with a dash of optimism.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ-Chicago Public Media. She wrote this piece for The Root.