Loyola University Chicago

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Panel Examines Crime Coverage in Chicago

Covering Crime Forum

By Emily Olsen, SOC Website Reporter

Sept. 2013--How did Chitown become Chiraq? Chicago has developed a national reputation for violence that’s not always easy for local media to cover. In “Covering the Crime Scene”, a panel discussion hosted by the School of Communication on Sept. 10, seasoned journalists explored how Chicago’s media coverage of violence impacts the community, how the nation views Chicago and how reporting may promote racial stereotypes.

“How is the media responding, reacting and reporting one of the most pressing social issues in Chicago?” said Phil Ponce, moderator of the discussion and Loyola  Distinguished Professional in Residence in the School of Communication, “If you live in Englewood, what impact does it have to see your neighborhood portrayed this way on the news?”

The panel included Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Frank Main of the Chicago Sun-Times, radio host Perri Small of WVON, ABC-7 reporter Charles Thomas and DNAInfo editor Seamus Toomey.

While many media organizations don’t have the time or resources to cover all the murders in Chicago, both DNAInfo and the Sun-Times have created projects to document every murder that occurs.

With “2013 Murder In Chicago: The Human Toll”, DNAInfo attempts to humanize Chicago’s murder victims.

“Let’s not try and pick out which person is worth covering, we’ll write about everything,” said Toomey.

Main acknowledged that the Sun-Times doesn’t have the time or space to cover all the homicides in Chicago in the paper, creating “misdemeanor murders” or murders that don’t qualify as important enough for newspaper coverage.

With the creation of  “Homicide Watch”, a website that covers and tries to put a face to each murder in Chicago, reporters allow for feedback about each case from the community.

“It is pretty grim, but a lot of these people are grateful that someone is paying attention,” said John Carpenter, Loyola adjunct professor and editor of “Homicide Watch”.

Intense crime coverage may help to bring these murders to the forefront of discussion, but can also reinforce stereotypes, especially about the African-American community.

Peri Small, who works for the only African-American owned and operated radio station in Illinois, said that these stories make Chicago look like a dangerous place when it isn’t indicative of the entire city.

“That doesn’t define the black community or Chicago,” said Small, “We focus on some of the crime, and it’s a shame these things happen, but it doesn’t define the African-American community.”

Charles Thomas said that it’s important to cover a variety of community members from the graduate student to the gang member.

Thomas also pointed out that the mainstream media is often heavily white, which contributes to problematic reporting and the creation of stereotypes.

“The problem rests in that African-Americans in Chicago and other big cities are not telling our own story,” said Thomas.

Covering gang violence has also become a more difficult task for local reporters. Thomas said that gangs are not the same as they were in the 1990s, when gangs could be citywide networks.

Now many of the top gang leaders are in prison, leaving people on the street to declare looser gang allegiances.

Carpenter acknowledges that reporters need to be cautious when reporting on gang-related crime.

“You have to be careful, you have to do the best you can to find out what the truth is,” said Carpenter, “Some homicides are 100 percent gang-related, there aren’t as many of those, but they’re there.”

Police have a database of intelligence about gang affiliation, but Carpenter warns that a person being affiliated with a gang might not mean it was a gang-related crime.

Alexa Asmus, a Loyola sophomore who attended the panel, was surprised by the content and learned a lot.

“It had never occurred to me to consider location and race as much,” said Asmus, “Coming from somewhere where crime’s not so prevalent, it’s very in your face.”