Covering Youth Violence
In this tipsheet from the 2011 Dart Center workshop "Getting it Right: Covering Youth Violence," Daniel Connolly gives advice on how to investigate youth violence.
One rule of thumb is that you should get clearance from parents whenever possible before interviewing children and youths. More detailed suggestions can be found in the Dart Center tipsheet entitled “Interviewing Children: Guidelines for Journalists.”
I spoke with a 16-year-old African-American girl at the conference who stated vehemently that the Philadelphia news media’s recent coverage of “flash mobs” had painted all young people as menacing thugs. She said this had even affected how people looked at her when she walked around in public.
I’m not from Philadelphia and haven’t seen any of the local media’s coverage of this issue. Still, I think the teenager’s comments should remind us that the media hold great power to shape perceptions.
As Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia put it in his presentation at the conference, the fundamental questions of adolescence are “Who am I?” “Am I normal?” and “Who am I going to become?” Media representations can affect how young people see themselves and their potential, he said.
“Don’t hype the negative,” he said. “It causes irreparable harm in my kids.”
Obviously, we have to cover serious crime, but speakers at the conference said it’s best to avoid portraying it as common unless there’s clear evidence that it really is. The best approach is to put violence into context, says Stephen Franklin of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. For instance, when you’re covering a shooting in a neighborhood, try to find out what the crime statistics really show.
You might be surprised to learn that despite perceptions of rising crime, the numbers are actually trending downward. Instead of quoting a man on the street saying how dangerous the area is, you could report “This is the second crime this year in the area.”
He also recommends that reporters do more news items on youth in general, not just youth violence, and that reporters look for stories about resilience and success. “We’re fighting stereotypes,” he said. “We’re fighting hopelessness.”
LOOK FOR SOLUTIONS
Several speakers suggested that journalists should write about possible solutions to youth violence as a means of heading off hopelessness. The Philadelphia workshop included several talks from public health experts. Here are some of the most notable ideas presented:
- The CeaseFire approach. Physician Gary Slutkin pioneered the idea of using an epidemic-prevention approach to stopping violence. He believes in treating it as a disease that spreads because it changes people’s perceptions of what’s normal. In some neighborhoods, violence becomes an acceptable way to deal with problems, he said. A key part of the CeaseFire concept is the use of “interrupters” - trained people who try to intervene in disputes and convince angry people not to resort to violence. The documentary movie “The Interrupters” shows this approach in action in Chicago, and other cities are picking it up. Visit www.ceasefirechicago.org to learn more.
- Emergency room interventions. Dr. Ted Corbin of Drexel University College of Medicine explained that people who show up in emergency rooms with traumatic wounds from shootings, stabbings, beatings or other violence may recover and be released, but are often shot or stabbed again in the years that follow. He described the Healing Hurt People program, which helps victims deal with the psychological trauma of violence and encourages them put aside the urge to retaliate and to help them avoid behaviors that led to the violence. Visit www.nonviolenceandsocialjustice.org to learn more.
- Reporters should remember that there are many nonprofit organizations at work in poor neighborhoods, and some are much more effective than others. Stephen Franklin of Chicago’s Community Media Workshop says reporters need to ask such organizations for evidence that they’re actually making a difference.
FINDING MARGINALIZED YOUTH TO INTERVIEW
If you want to talk with troubled youth, find a good guide to introduce you. You could tag along with an outreach worker who’s already involved in the neighborhood. That’s what the makers of the documentary “The Interrupters” did. Stephen Franklin of Chicago’s Community Media Workshop suggests that you not use law enforcement officials as guides, at least not at first.