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The [Sunday] Papers

Both the Tribune and Sun-Times put Englewood on their front pages Sunday as the press struggles as much as the community for an effective response to two recent shooting deaths of innocent children caught in the grip of the neighborhood's violence.

The Sun-Times dedicates the bulk of its front page to "Inside Englewood: Kids in the Crossfire." The two-page spread takes us inside the home where Siretha White was killed by a stray bullet from the street during a party for her 11th birthday.

The piece is nicely laden with a brief list of how the neighborhood "tries to carve out safe havens for children," though even a hint of skepticism about the effectiveness of block clubs, recreational programs, and Saturday activities organized by the police would have been welcome.

Similarly, the article contains useful statistics (the Englewood police district not only led the city in murders with 37 last year, but led in aggravated batteries; also, hospitalizations due to gunshots for kids in West Englewood, at 98.2 per 100,000 kids, are twice that of kids living elsewhere) but lacks skepticism of police efforts.

"[P]olice officials say they have sent every extra resource to the neighborhood to pressure gangs and take guns off the street," the paper reports dutifully.

"Crime declined [in the district, I assume] 7 percent in 2005," the paper reports, which is a meaningless statistic unless we can compare it to the crime rate citywide, which then must be compared to the falling crime rate nationally.

If indeed, the police's efforts are responsible for the drop in Englewood crime, we might ask that they do even more of the same, but with "every extra resource" already deployed, they would seem to be at their limit.

Nonetheless, reporters Lisa Donovan and Annie Sweeney manage to largely avoid the bathos this story could have drown in.

The Tribune takes a different approach, telling the story of what it's like to live in West Englewood through the eyes of a single family (who can also be heard themselves in audio/video on the paper's Website.)

But sympathetic neighborhood portraits are the media version of marches against violence: An appropriate response that feels good and might even have a small measure of effectiveness, but hardly enough to confront the deep-rooted, complex problems of a community seemingly in perpetual crisis.

While the media calls upon lawmakers and citizens to uphold their end of the bargain in Englewood and do something, it can ask more of itself as well. The media can't make policy, but it can produce better journalism, particularly with the kind of caring and investment it seems to want everyone else to commit to.

Perhaps the local press ought to treat the violence (and the poverty that drives it) in Englewood and elsewhere like Hurricane Katrina - an opportunity to explore race, class, and economics.

Because the media is as responsible as anyone for "disinvesting" in Englewood and other neighborhoods like it.

The Tribune, for example, doesn't much care for the residents of Englewood in terms of growing its readership. To the contrary.

"By reducing circulation efforts among low-income, minority readers, newspapers actually improve the overall demographic profile of their audiences, which they then use to justify raising advertising rates," wrote James Squires in his 1993 book, Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover Of America's Newspapers. Squires was editor of the Tribune for eight-and-a-half years; I have yet to hear his account disputed.

When Squires was at the Tribune, the paper divided Chicagoland into five Quintiles. Quintile One had the highest demographic profile while Quintile Five had the lowest. You can guess which Quintile Englewood fell in. That's why there are fully-staffed bureaus in Vernon Hills, Schaumburg, Oak Brook, and Tinley Park, but not a single reporter (as far as I know or that anyone could glean from the newspaper's coverage) assigned to Englewood.

So when the Tribune editorial page calls on everyone else to act, it ought to consider the role its own paper is neglecting. Perhaps it should call on the police to implement more innovative strategies, local political leaders to do more about guns and gangs, national leaders to focus on poverty, and the paper to open an Englewood bureau to better report on it all.

But then, the paper only sporadically assigns a reporter to cover the Chicago Housing Authority--which is only engaged in a so-called Plan for Transformation that has the eyes of the nation upon it. So clearly the Tribune's priorities are elsewhere.

Of course, it's not just the Tribune that's remiss. The media as a whole, for example, refuses to adequately explore the issue of realigning police beats according to where crime actually occurs. Every few years the issue of beat realignment crops up and is quickly pushed back down. How can the police have really shifted "every extra resource" to Englewood without just such a beat realignment? The formation of "hot spot" units doesn't count; this is a strategy above and beyond daily beats, which were supposed to be the cornerstone of community policing.

A more comprehensive evaluation of the mayor's plan for Englewood - one on par with the media coverage given to his past plans for, say, downtown improvements - would also be useful. Updating this fine package by The Chicago Reporter would be a good place to start.

(Though, like the police, the papers shouldn't count on "hot spot" coverage to do the job instead of daily beat coverage.)

The impact of the mayor's budget on Englewood and other poor neighborhoods also bears exploring. Why am I skeptical of Richard M. Daley's War on Poverty? How will these holes be filled? And should we now revisit the debate over a third airport in Peotone in a more constructive way given the project's potential economic impact on the city's South Side?)

Finally, there is something even more fundamental the papers and the rest of the media could do: Cover the city council in a more serious manner. Even during campaigns we rarely see the performance of individual aldermen evaluated.

In 2003, for example, incumbent Ted Thomas of the 15th Ward, which includes part of Englewood, won re-election in a runoff against former Chicago Bull Bob Love. Almost all of the slight coverage of the race focused on Love's celebrity. As I wrote at the time in my old Press Box column on Chicago magazine's Website, a third candidate, Livia Villarreal, a former FBI agent, finished about 700 votes behind Love and received the Tribune's editorial page endorsement. Yet, Villarreal never appeared in a Tribune story, and her name appeared only once in the Sun-Times - as one of eight "other candidates."

The story was similar in nearby wards such as the 21st and the 6th. In the 21st, Howard Brookins Jr. defeated incumbent Leonard DeVille in a runoff. While stories appeared in the papers about the possibility that former alderman and felon Jesse Evans would run in this race, no stories appeared in the Tribune or Sun-Times about DeVille or Brookins.

In the 6th, incumbent Freddrenna Lyle fended off former Olympic athlete Willye White, whose celebrity earned her some coverage. White won 20 percent of the vote (2,573). But then, so did Eugene Davis (2,505 votes). And Eli Washington wasn't far behind (2,409 votes.) Neither Davis nor Washington was ever mentioned in a Tribune news story. The Sun-Times included Davis and Washington in a 486-word story about the race--the only such story I could find.

At the time, Tribune metro editor Hanke Gratteau told me the paper didn't do more to cover city council races because it didn't think residents cared to read about races in wards other than their own.

But apparently the paper thinks readers are interested in violence in other people's neighborhoods when the circumstances are suitably dramatic.

Note: The [Monday] Papers will be posted later today. Please come back for more Beachwoody goodness, as well as new postings elsewhere on the site.



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Posted on March 20, 2006


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