Covering Violence To Death
The recent string of shootings in Salinas spotlights the media's role in reporting violence.
Thursday, May 4, 2000
How many times did you watch the OJ Simpson police chase? The tragedy at Columbine High? How about the Elian raid? In a decade marked by rising media coverage of violence, pundits across the nation are questioning the public''s obsession with violence, the media''s "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude, and the potential impact of news coverage on the national psyche. In a bizarre twist on the old notion that children deserve special treatment, it seems that the younger the criminal, the more Americans want to know, especially when it''s "gang-related."
The Monterey County Herald''s reporting of the recent spate of violence in Salinas has brought this debate closer to home. Peter Young, executive editor of The Herald, says the paper has taken great pains to report fairly and sensitively about the murders, shootings, and firebombings in Salinas over the past two months.
"The job of a newspaper is to print the news. We hold a mirror up to our community," he explains. "Do you blame the mirror if it shows you''re bleeding?"
But Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero and local gang activist Brian Contreras take a different view, raising two issues central to the nationwide debate over media crime coverage. On one hand, does the violence in question merit the degree of news space it commands? And on the other hand, is the type of coverage appropriate?
Three weeks ago, Caballero wrote to The Herald complaining that its coverage of the violence and the city''s response had wrongly laid blame on elected officials and divided those working to prevent further violence. Echoing concerns raised by Salinas residents at a town meeting held the previous week, she urged the reduction of front-page stories and photos that she said "glorified" gang violence, and she criticized incendiary headlines and dehumanizing numeric countdowns of the violence.
Several days later, The Herald''s city editor Andy Rose responded to the mayor''s letter in his weekly column.
"Hiding the truth is always wrong," wrote Rose. "The violence is unprecedented, so it''s The Media''s mission to try to examine it in detail."
But Contreras, director of the Second Chance gang intervention program in Salinas, says things in Salinas aren''t as bad as The Herald is making out. However tragic and important this wave of violence has been, he says, it is not unprecedented, and The Herald is giving it too much play. According to Contreras, Salinas has seen similar eruptions of gang violence every few years.
"I''m bothered by the melodrama of The Herald''s stories [on the violence]," says Contreras. "People are still out at night, walking around. The reporting is contributing to fear. Salinas is a good town, I''m not going anywhere."
UC Santa Cruz journalism lecturer Conn Hallinan says heightened media coverage of violence has increased the public''s fear of crime, despite falling crime rates. This rising fear, says Hallinan, has very real consequences.
"I see a one-to-one ratio between the passage of Prop. 21 [the Juvenile Justice Initiative] and increased media coverage of violence," he explains. "There are consequences for what newspapers do and they need to be aware of that. The media shouldn''t turn around and say, ''It''s not our problem,'' because it is."
Perspective, he says, is key.
"I don''t believe the crime in Salinas is the leading story," he says. "It''s not a reflection of what the majority are experiencing in daily life."
Caballero says Rose missed the point of her letter to The Herald, which was not asking the editors to censor the newspaper but to alter its tone.
"People are concerned that putting photos of gang members on the front page is like a badge of distinction," says Caballero.
Young sees little merit to this line of thinking. "The battles being fought on the streets of Salinas are for power and turf, not P.R.," he insists. "To suggest that our coverage could be inciting the gangs is like blaming the Red Cross for war."
Perhaps, but as for recent events in Salinas, Contreras says the first thing gang members have done when they come into his office over the past weeks has been to grab The Herald''s local section and see who got shot and whose face was in the paper today.
Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest dedicated to helping gang members in East L.A., says that while media coverage of violence can at times "serve the cohesion" of gang life, the more serious result is the demonization of neighborhoods and young people. Boyle points to a Los Angeles Times series about a prominent gang a few years back.
"All it said was ''we have monsters in our midst,''" he recalls.
Looking back on his years covering the gang beat for the LA Times in the early 1990s, crime reporter Jesse Katz says he grappled often with the question of how much to cover the violence that tore through L.A. on a nightly basis. "I asked myself, by writing about this gang violence, am I contributing to the stereotype of this community as a bad place? Or by not covering the death of a young person, am I writing this community off and saying ''who cares?''"
Katz''s solution was to avoid what he calls "blow-by-blow" coverage and instead to present the issues through longer, in-depth stories that probed the minds, homes, and lives of the shooters and their victims. To personalize the gang members he wrote about, Katz went straight to the source and published as many details about their lives as possible, including faces, favorite hangouts, and gang monikers.
"The police have valid perspectives," Katz continues, "but why can''t the protagonists speak for themselves? When something happened, I headed straight for the neighborhood and talked to people that looked like gang members, their neighbors, probation officers, police and community workers. I am here to understand, not to condemn; to humanize, not to demonize."
Varied and informed sources are the keys to informative and useful articles, says Katz. While Young insists The Herald has probed the violence in depth, looking behind the scenes at root causes and soliciting comments from leading clergy, Contreras says that from his vantage point, The Herald''s explanation behind the present outbreak is "not true at all."
UCSC''s Hallinan laments that while the media excels at "who, what, when, and where," "why" is treated like the poor stepchild. "There''s a growing income gap in our country," he muses, "and every day, 26 millionaires are created in Silicon Valley. The kids in Salinas know that. They may not know the statistic, but they can feel it. We can''t ignore the ''why'' question just because we''re trying to be objective."