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Crime Reporting Needs To Be Reformed. Enter Systems Thinking

Photo credit: Pete Jelliffe via Flickr

When City Bureau, a civic media organization based in Chicago’s South Side, and The Center for Media Engagement, a research initiative of the University of Texas at Austin, surveyed people in Chicago about issues in the local media last year, one topic stood out among the responses: crime.

A majority of the 900 survey participants – 57 percent – rated “crime and law enforcement” as the most important issue facing their neighborhood.

At the same time, the majority of residents surveyed on Chicago’s South and West sides said that they thought coverage of their neighborhood was too negative.

Darryl Holliday, News Lab Director and co-founder at City Bureau, immediately thought the result was fueled in large part by the way that journalists cover crime in Chicago. Faced with hundreds of homicides each year, reporters often rely on “scoreboard” reporting, highlighting violent crimes as numbers alone without much context or depth.

Even when news organizations produce more detailed stories about victims and their families, they don’t usually center on the underlying causes of violence or what could be done to stem it.

As Susy Schultz, director of Public Narrative, a Chicago nonprofit providing storytelling training for journalists and community organizations, frames it: “We seem to be covering war, not neighborhoods and people.”

These journalistic approaches can help entrench the complex system that drives violent crime. They tend to paint a singular, negative narrative about communities and, as Schultz writes, leave people feeling as though violence is the norm in certain underserved areas. In reality, high crime rates are the result of a variety of forces at work in a community.

“Even if crime is really the issue that people care about most, the solutions are not in covering the crimes themselves,” Holliday said. “They’re in education, employment, healthcare – all the factors that contribute to crime.”

What would it look like if journalists shifted from covering crime as individual events and focused more on the connections between the forces that fuel it? Could we collectively examine the deeper connections to the inequality and racism that allow it to thrive in urban communities?

If we applied a systems thinking mindset, could we give people the information they seek about crime and violence in their community while pointing toward interventions that might address core problems and combat harmful stereotypes?

These questions are at the heart of a conversation that Journalism + Design will help facilitate in partnership with City Bureau and Block Club Chicago this week as part of City Bureau’s weekly Public Newsroom series.

We will seek input from journalists and community members about what they want to see from local journalism on crime and how reporters can reframe their approach to better interrogate its root causes, not just the symptoms.

This conversation will draw from earlier discussions on crime reporting with roots in Chicago. In 2015, Public Narrative hosted a workshop on how to better cover race, police and community that drew reporters from across the country and produced two guides with best practices and tips. In July 2016, Holliday began a Google Doc to crowdsource ideas on how to facilitate more equitable representation in media related to crime and policing.

We want to build on that dialogue and surface recommendations for journalists everywhere on pursuing more equitable, empowering coverage of crime and plan to compile recommendations from the discussion into public resources.

If you’re in Chicago, join us at Build Coffee on Thursday, July 12 at 6 p.m.