Studies show that African-Americans and Latinos have endured years of unbalanced media coverage-and that members of these forgotten communities are fed up.
Young people of color unleashed their pent-up frustration during a recent town hall on youth violence prevention at the Illinois Institute of Technology, featuring a panel of journalists and media educators. More than 600 youth from at-risk communities gathered for the youth-organized and led meeting. Six media panelists fielded questions from audience members.
Although appreciative for the opportunity to speak with actual media members, some of the youth felt that the journalists repeatedly dodged their questions, offering excuses rather than answers. After the town hall, members from the media panel noted that they may not have broken through with many of the youth.
“They’re oblivious to us, just like we’re oblivious to them,” said Anumbus Rah, who runs the popular Chicago hip-hop blog “The Guttahouse.”
When pressed by students on the lack of positive media coverage in minority communities, the panelists conceded that they could do a better job reporting, but most also emphasized that the youth were equally responsible for getting their positive stories told.
At the town hall, panelists stressed the importance of young people contacting reporters with positive story pitches and learning to speak the journalists’ language. They also advised the youth to get involved with school newspapers to tell their own stories. Some added that reporters were ultimately at the mercy of an editor’s whims.
“All I can do is try to push it out there, but I’m a foot soldier,” said Kathy Chaney of the Chicago Defender. “I don’t make the coverage decisions.”
Cortez Spearman, a 20-year-old Roseland resident at the event, empathized with the reporters.
“I think they could do a little better, but at the same time, I think they’re doing the best they can. It’s a job.” he said. “They can’t view everything that’s great. They can’t view everything that’s bad.”
Panelist and ABC-7 producer Stephen Lewis explained to students how staff cuts underlay the decline of media coverage in certain neighborhoods. But while Lawrence acknowledged the difficulty that reduced staffs face, he wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“That’s not a cop-out or an excuse, still,” he said. “Because even when they had the staffing, often the papers failed to cover the communities in a holistic way-covering, you know, the good things and bad things.”
Another major point broached during the town hall was the clear chasm that exists between marginalized communities and the media, as community-wide anger has seemingly turned to all-out news avoidance. This self-initiated news evasion left panelist Brenda Butler wondering what right youth have to complain about news coverage when they aren’t consuming it.
“Teens are criticizing on one end, but they’re not doing their work,” said Butler, a longtime editor at the Chicago Tribune. “They’re not reading as they should. They’re not engaging. And some of the criticisms they talked about; I just wondered, how far would they really go to try to reach someone at a newspaper or at a TV station. Had they really tried to do that?”
Lawrence said he believes the only way to fully report on any community and gain its trust is through embedding and becoming a fixture at community events. Speaking after the event, panelists Chaney and Butler both agreed that that was essential.
“Clearly more of that needs to be done because there is a distrust or a disconnect between the media and the people in the communities,” said Butler, who currently heads a youth journalism program for Chicago Public School students at Columbia College.
“More of that needs to happen. Those alliances with people in the communities-all the best stories are told that way.”