The dignity of fifth-graders

In a timely development, the Columbia Journalism Review just published a long essay on how media outlets cover violent crime in Chicago. They interview a lot of very smart people, including some who have done some of the city’s best reporting already; the whole thing is worth a read.

There seems to be general agreement that the current coverage falls short in a variety of ways: that’s it too obsessed with “box scores” (X Killed Over Y Hours This Weekend), and can be too light on humanizing victims – both the people who are shot, and the family, friends, and neighbors who are also traumatized – and on explaining the larger picture, the social and economic forces that create Chicago’s landscape of crime.

But I think Natalie Moore, the South Side bureau chief for WBEZ, got to the heart of the issue best:

“What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks.

Obviously, ideally, you’re checking many boxes: that crime is a major problem in many neighborhoods; that its victims are real people, with families and lives that every reader should be able to empathize with, even white North Siders; that in most places, crime has been falling; that the concentration of crime in Chicago is the more or less predictable result of decades of segregation and economic decline; that in most ways, despite the violence, normal life continues in these neighborhoods: people go to work, to school, have birthdays, and so on.

But I think nearly as important as coming up with an ideal list is acknowledging that choosing one path over another involves tradeoffs. That sounds stupidly obvious, but I think it may be obscured by the coverage philosophy taken by both the Tribune and Sun-Times over the last several years. Both papers have committed themselves to covering every homicide in the city at a level of detail that, as Alex Kotlowitz says in the CJR piece, they have not, historically. The principle, as I understand it, is that each victim deserves the dignity of being recognized, of having their passing officially and publicly acknowledged, and that to do otherwise is an abdication of our collective responsibility to face one of our city’s ongoing tragedies.

That’s an admirable principle for a news organization to hold itself to, and it’s certainly an improvement over ignoring the issue, or pretending it’s not a big deal. But if that is the focus of scarce journalistic resources, then what does that say about our implicit answer to Natalie Moore’s question? More to the point, what are we saying we don’t think is important? Or – to really get down to it – whose dignity aren’t we upholding?

A class of fifth-graders in South Shore has some ideas about that:

We saw your news trucks and cameras here recently ad we read the articles, “Six shot in South Shore laundromat”…. You don’t really know us.

Those who don’t know us think this is a poor neighborhood, with abandoned buildings everywhere, with wood covering the windows and broken doors. They see the candy wrappers and empty juice bottles and think that we don’t care. Uneducated, jobless and thieves. You will be scared of these heartless people. When you see us coming, you might hurry and get in your car and lock the doors. Then speed through these streets at 60 mph like you’re on the highway, trying to get out of this ghetto.

We want you to know us.

The authors of those lines are ten and eleven, and they already know that they and all of their friends and all of their neighbors are pariahs. That is also a tragedy, and not one that any paper I’ve seen has seen fit to dedicate any journalistic resources to at all, prior to this op-ed.

Their pariahdom, of course, was not invented by the media. Its roots go back to the way white people reacted when black people began moving into their neighborhoods, not so long ago – the panic, the desperate attempts to use laws, violence, or anything within reach to keep black people as far from their homes as possible. In short, racism.

The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers
The South Shore Drill Team. Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

But a social phenomenon as widespread and powerful as the pariahdom of Chicago’s black communities requires ongoing rationalization, and by far the most powerful at the moment is an overwhelming fear of violence that is completely untethered from the reality of daily life in those neighborhoods. Visiting the South Shore Cultural Center, or getting a meal at Lem’s BBQ on 75th St., does not actually involve taking your life into your hands; but a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans who have been fed a steady diet of “war zone” stories for years think otherwise.

Fifth-graders in South Shore, and every other black neighborhood, are children like their peers everywhere else. They are not thugs to fear and mock. But a huge number of North Siders, suburbanites, and non-Chicagoans fear and mock them. And the fifth-graders know it.

That is also an affront to dignity.

I’m not, of course, under the impression that newspapers have the power to erase the legacy of racism. But I think that if the answer to “What do we want people to know?” doesn’t include “That you don’t have to be terrified of everyone, including fifth-graders,” we need to think about that some more. And if we think about it and decide that that is still our answer, we need to acknowledge what, and who, we have chosen to shortchange, and we need to have some very good reasons for it.

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6 thoughts on “The dignity of fifth-graders

  1. This was a very interesting read. Having recently moved to the states, I’ve picked up on a few things regarding how people of different cultures and races relate to each other. What’s interesting is no one has ever said anything outright “racist” but there are underlying attitudes and stereotypes to comments that have been made. It’s not any different to the country I came from, but because I grew up with it I wasn’t fully aware it was going on. Now that I’m in a new country with ethnic groups that are new to me and I have very little pre-conceived notions about, I definitely notice when someone says something that implies negative connotations about a certain group of people.

  2. Thanks for sharing the piece from the south shore kids. Great post and such interesting points about the role of journalism in a wider sense. Rachel, your comment is really relevant to what I’ve been writing about recently too!

  3. I totally empathize with the stereotyping. It is part of the self protective mechanism that gets into gear when confronted with the unknown and the vulnerability I feel when I get lost driving through an economically depressed community. Unfortunately those are low income because of joblessness. Joblessness attracts gangs and drugs and violence. But that is not the end of the story. Behind closed doors are families, people that choose no to take that path and children that have yet to write their story. Thank you for sharing. We all deserve to be exposed to a balanced perspective. How else can we be challenged to change, choose compassion and make a difference?

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