Covering Violence: A Report on a Conference on Violence and the Young

By Trost, Cathy | American Journalism Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Covering Violence: A Report on a Conference on Violence and the Young


Trost, Cathy, American Journalism Review


Stories about crime and violence dominate the news, but the stories often don't go much beyond body counts. As a result, the media face increasing criticism for lurid coverage that provokes public fear about runaway crime. Against that backdrop, the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families convened a conference to help journalists take a more comprehensive look at the causes and consequences of increasing violence by and against children and youths. Thirty print and broadcast journalists spent a week in intensive discussions with 40 experts at the conference on "Violence and the Young," the second of an annual series of such conferences held at the University of Maryland. The journalists, chosen from a field of 82 applicants, engaged in hours of policy discussions about violence, its roots and its impact. But they also had sessions about news judgment, play and ethical concerns and debated ways to cover the issue better.

The following summary of the conference was funded by the Casey Journalism Center and was written by its director, Cathy Trost, a former children's beat reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

JOURNALISTS NEED TO DO A BETTER JOB OF STRIKING A BALANCE between fear and fact when reporting on crime and violence, and work harder to convey the complexities of the story. That message pervaded intensive discussions at the conference.

For journalists, it's one of the most demanding stories around. Covering children and violence requires digging through confusing crime data, investigating root causes, searching for solutions, and trying to put a human face on statistics while dealing with confidentiality and access barriers in child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But best intentions are often undermined by deadline constraints, shrinking news holes, and increasing pressures from tabloidstyle television and newspapers to play up the sensational aspects of crime stories.

"How do we write about the violence, the poverty, the isolation without sensationalizing it, without being trite, without sounding like a foreign correspondent, without appearing wide-eyed, without blaming the victim or absolving them of responsibility?" asked Alex Kotlowitz, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of "There Are No Children Here," an award-winning book about the toll of violence on two brothers living in Chicago public housing.

He said there is a "very deep and wide chasm that separates the two Americas" and journalists must be able to provide a bridge for better understanding between them.

"The most important challenge for us in this profession is to get people to believe stories that approach unbelievability," he said. "Given the horrors that take place in communities like the one I wrote about and the ones you write about, the best we can do is understate what takes place, not to hype it. More importantly, to bring readers into the lives of these children in as intimate a way as we can. To let readers feel the fear and anxiety of these children. To let them smell the urine and spilled cheap wine in the halls of public housing. To let them become nauseous at the sight of a bloodied corpse. To let them share in the joy of winning a spelling bee or landing the first date. To capture both their strengths as well as their frailties."

Conference speakers cautioned journalists to carefully scrutinize crime data because the numbers can be confusing. They warned that without context, the daily images and stories about random crime and violence splashed across television screens and newspaper and magazine pages are fueling false public perceptions of an unprecedented crime wave and misguided public policy solutions.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, warned that the "moral threshhold" of the country had dropped so low "that we have somehow accepted that killing children is routine." Though crime victims are disproportionately minority and lower income, she said violence transcends race and class and challenged journalists to "make clear about the transracial nature of gun violence in this society. …

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