How they see us

By DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS      JUNE 2, 2015

CHICAGO – If there was a consensus from those who attended the McCormick Foundation Specialized Reporting Institute on race, community and police, it was that many of the key players are leery and suspect there is bias in the media.

During a two-day workshop on crime reporting put on by Community Media Workshop in connection with Poynter Institute and funded by the McCormick Foundation, a group of 20 working journalists from across the country got an insider’s look into the gap between what comes out in news reporting and those at the center of it. It gave the reporters attending a change to get away from deadline pressures and discuss coverage issues with law enforcement, advocacy groups, such as the NAACP Legal Fund and Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago — academics and community members.

Susy Schultz, a veteran reporter who is now president of Community Media Workshop, lamented the predominant image central to urban crime reporting: “A woman with her arms thrown up and yellow tape.”

But what the CMW conference held April 23-25 in Chicago was searching for is a deeper perspective, less one-dimensional, that reinforces a truth blotter coverage often misses.

“These are not neighborhoods just where people are dying,” Schultz said. “They’re neighborhoods where people are also living.”

So with a slate of professionals from law enforcement and activists working with trauma-stricken kids in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, many of the journalists wanted to know: How do they see us?

“It is so easy to fall into stereotypes and known narratives,” said Jin Hee Lee, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “… Every incident, every tragedy is very specific.”

A civil rights attorney, much of her work is to “humanize clients,” Lee said. And many on the workshop panelists discussing race, policing and community agreed that it should be the charge of reporters as well.
“As journalists I would encourage you to find those people,” Lee said.

“It’s the people you don’t see, they’re the ones who are really doing the work.”

Fred Waller, a district commander for the Chicago Police Department, said that media will focus on the work police do, and miss the more complicated dynamics of the court system.

“People often look at the police,” he said. “They don’t look at that second level.”

Sue Rahr, a former sheriff of King County, which includes Seattle, who now heads up the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, laid out one of her very first interactions with the press.

She spoke during a session on “Understanding police culture,” Rahr criticized a newspaper’s investigation into her department. “They were desperate for a Pulitzer Prize,” she said. In the end, the experience “validated my fear that the press was out to get you.”

Reinforcing a sentiment that was common among the law enforcement speaking at the workshop, Rahr gave this advice: “Don’t stop at the police. I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the police, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Kalantzis is managing editor of The Daily Journal in Kankakee. He attended the McCormick Foundation SRI and was given a stipend to cover the event.