By: Mark Fitzgerald
News is played differently depending on what part of the city
it originates from, according to some panelists at Unity ’94 sp.
DECADES OF LAW enforcement experience have made Los Angeles police chief Willie Williams quite a media specialist.
So these days when he gets a report of a crime, Williams says he has a pretty good idea what kind of coverage it will get.
“If the victim is a white male or female ? particularly if she is elderly or, in recent years, if the victim is a foreigner ? special attention will be paid” by the press, Williams said at the recent Unity ’94 conference of minority journalists in Atlanta.
It’s not that Williams resents intense coverage of some crimes, he said ? he just wishes journalists paid more attention across the board.
“If we could get 10% of the publicity we get in some crimes [paid to] other murders, we could solve those crimes. Because someone knows what happened in those murders,” he said.
But the more typical press reaction, Williams said, is to highlight some crimes and completely ignore others.
He noted, for instance, that when two Japanese exchange students were killed in a Los Angeles carjacking, it quickly became an international story.
“No one asked about what happened in the other seven murders that occurred that day,” Williams said.
Some journalists at the discussion, which was sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Freedom Forum foundation, said on their end of the coverage they notice the same kind of race-based criteria of what makes a notable crime story.
Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall recalled that when he was a police reporter in Atlanta he would review upcoming stories with his editor.
Almost inevitably, McCall said, coverage differed depending on whether the crime victim lived in the predominately black south side of the city or on the predominately white north side.
“If it happened on the south side, he would say, ‘Give me a brief.’ And if it happened in the north, he would say, ‘Let’s look into that one,’ ” said McCall, author of the memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America.
“The implication was that the people on the south side aren’t anybody but those homicidal blacks who commit murder, while if it happened on the north side, there must be something to [the story],” McCall said.
Some African-American journalists said race-based crime coverage is so systematic, it’s virtually unconscious.
“I don’t think there’s some newsroom conspiracy where a group of white men are sitting out there locked away saying we’re going to depict white women this way and black this way and Asian-Americans this way,” said Bruce Johnson, news anchor at WUSA-TV, Washington, D.C. “I think it’s an almost unconscious situation.”
“If there is any sin, it’s the sin of negligence. It’s the fact that there are only white men sitting in that room,” Johnson added.
Not everyone at Unity ’94 was so quick to give a benefit of the doubt, however.
“I love Bruce Johnson’s coverage, but I couldn’t disagree with him more when he says coverage by reporters is negligent and not intentionally racist,” said Charles Ogletree, chairman of Harvard University’s Criminal Justice Institute.
“I think people want to cover crime in a certain way,” Ogletree added. “I think they want to promote images in a certain way.
“Ninety-nine percent of black people don’t commit crimes and yet we see images of black people day in, day out, and the impression is that they are all committing crimes.”
But even changing the faces of these newsroom decision-makers won’t by itself change coverage, argued Philadelphia Inquirer associate editorial page editor Acel Moore.
“Even with a diverse newsroom, it’s so engrained that you don’t even think about it,” Moore said.
To change that supposed bias, some papers are changing their crime news-gathering systems.
At the Chicago Tribune, for example, Melita Garza is called the “ethnic affairs writer.”
She covers a beat that explicitly looks for different ways to report on crime and its effect on minority communities.
“There really has to be a cultural change ? not just a color change,” she said.
Similarly, the Portland Oregonian is attempting to upgrade police reporting by creating a “crime, criminal justice and public safety” team staffed with reporters far more experienced than the typical cop shop beginner.
“We’re really trying to take crime out of the racial arena, if you will, and put it back in the community because that’s really where it has an impact, in the community,” said Oregonian managing editor Peter Bhatia.
“We’re leaving reporters on the ground after the TV cameras are gone and really finding out what’s happening in the communities,” Bhatia said.
Some changes in journalism itself have exacerbated unfair crime coverage, says Earl Caldwell, who recently departed as a New York Daily News columnist under controversial circumstances.
“We’ve allowed anonymous journalism to go to too far an extent,” Caldwell said.
“I was told by my mentor . . . when you have a quote, you put a name, an age and an address on it,” he added. “Now we have this anonymous journalism, and that allows people with all kinds of motives to wind up putting this information in places where it ought not to be and [where] they would not go . . . if they had to attach their name to it.
“So, I think, we need to go back and look at our standards because we have dropped off.”
Caldwell was fired ? or resigned, according to the Daily News ? after editors spiked his column about a crime: accusations of serial homosexual rape against a New York City police officer. Caldwell said the allegations had been given extensive coverage in New York City’s black-oriented weeklies.
“This story, while it was being suppressed in the white newspapers, was being reported in the black weeklies,” Caldwell said.
“I think there’s great danger in having different news in different parts of the city.”