Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Covering Child Murders

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Covering Child Murders

Article excerpt

Three Midwestern metro newspapers have intensified their coverage in order to spotlight this new wave of urban violence

REACTING TO A horrifying new direction in urban violence, three big Midwestern newspapers are changing the way they cover the murders of children.

The Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune have launched separate crusades to spotlight the toll that violence -- in the home as well as on the streets -- is taking on youngsters in their communities.

Two of the papers, the Free Press and the Sun-Times, have also served notice that they are intentionally blurring the line between journalism and activism in order to help children.

"I think it is a time when we have to break journalistic rules and lead" Sun-Times editor Dennis Britton said. "No one else has been doing anything."

"We basically decided [at the Free Press] that some people aren't going to like it and some people are going to think we crossed the line.

"But while we'll acknowledge that viewpoint, we've got to do it anyway," said Jane Daugherty, who directs coverage of the Free Press' new "Children First" campaign.

"If somebody wants to argue about the interests of children, well, we'll argue with them," Daugherty added.

Editors at all three papers have made public vows to cover the violent deaths of children more intensely than they ever have.

"During the next year, the Tribune will not let the murder of a single child in our metropolitan area go unnoticed," editor Jack Fuller wrote in a front-page notice when 1993 was just three days old -- and a 14-year-old girl had already been shot to death.

"[The Tribune] will document every one, both to accord the loss of each young life the significance it deserves and to see if detailed knowledge can bring an end to the escalation of violence against those we all have the greatest duty to protect," he wrote.

Three months earlier, on Oct. 15, Sun-Times editor Britton also took to the front page, with an unusual full-page editorial about the death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis, killed by a sniper as he walked to school with his mother in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project.

"Dantrell Davis was our child, Chicago. We let him down. Please don't let this be someone else's problem. It's yours. It's mine. Let's together retake our city" Britton wrote.

In the months that followed, the Sun-Times has published numerous stories--many under the subhead "Dantrell's Legacy" -- on all aspects of the gro wing culture of violence ensnaring Chicago-area children.

In Chicago and Detroit, staggering numbers of children die violently: Last year, 43 kids under 17 were murdered in Detroit; 96 children aged 16 and under were murdered in Chicago.

The murder rates are just the most extreme manifestations of what, in some cities, is a virtual pandemic of traumatizing child violence.

In Detroit, the Free Press says, one of every five children has actually seen someone die violently. Last year, the schools confiscated 194 guns.

Probably the most ambitious newspaper effort confronting this issue is the Free Press' Children First campaign.

Already, the campaign has dramatically transformed the way the Free Press approaches stories about children and violence.

One immediately noticeable change: Every breaking story about a child's violent death also includes information about "what should have been done to prevent this situation," said Daugherty.

"There will be a sidebar on things like how to get help if you know of an [abuse] situation, or about agencies that offer conflict resolution training or crack [cocaine abuse] help lines," she said.

The change, Free Press publisher Neal Shine said, was prompted by complaints that the newspapers loaded readers down with gruesome and depressing details of these true-life horror stories, but never suggested what readers were supposed to do about these situations. …

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