Matt Katz: This is On the Media. I'm Matt Katz sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. In this hour, we've considered different ways to consume if it bleeds, it leads journalism, but what about just throwing out the whole genre and starting over? Tauhid Chappell is the Philadelphia Project Manager for Free Press, a nonpartisan organization, devoted to bettering journalism. A few years ago, Chappell and his co-author Mike Rispoli published an article for Harvard university's Nieman Lab, titled Defund the Crime Beat.
Their case, crime reporting doesn't center the communities it covers. Instead, it has always leaned on the source that journalists find easiest to call when something happens, the police. Tauhid welcome to the show.
Tauhid Chappell: Thanks for having me.
Matt: You co-wrote a piece on why the crime beat needs to go. Isn't crime news though, and how do citizens learn about crimes committed in their communities, which is something I would want to know if there isn't someone on the crime beat.
Tauhid: We can transform the crime beat. A lot of the reporting that we associate crime reporting with is only one side of the story. It's only one perspective, and it's not actually informing people the reasons as to why a crime is happening, or why a crime or crimes continue to happen. Now, for example, we know that in Philadelphia, there's a huge housing problem. There's a huge homelessness problem. There's a huge mental health problem. There's opioid problems. There's all these other problems that exist and put people in very precarious positions.
The problem is, is that when we see stories around crime, we don't get to hear from people who actually have lived in those communities and can help provide the nuance and the context as to what has been going on. Journalists are so pressed to publish, publish, publish, and produce content that they have a closer connection with police. Because police have the relationships with journalists, they are able to drive these narratives much more than community members even have an opportunity to.
Matt: Does that mean that every 32nd story on the nightly local news needs to get at the systemic issues that led to whatever murder they might be reporting on in that moment?
Tauhid: Why can't that happen, is my question. If we as journalists are supposed to inform the people, I think that there are ways for us to actually look at how we do the news in the first place and start to ask the questions as to why we are determining what types of stories are more important than others when we haven't heard historically from Black and brown communities, that these are the stories that aren't actually keeping them safe or keeping them informed about their neighborhoods.
Matt: If I'm producing the local nightly news in Philly, I would probably push back and say, there was an average of more than a murder a day in Philly last year. The kind of journalism that you're talking about requires days of reporting. It's just not feasibly possible given their resources, their newscast, and the way they've always approached these sorts of things
Tauhid: As someone who's worked in TV as well, I definitely could see that perspective. In fact, I've had conversations with executive producers around the way that we do typical crime stories. I do have a special heart for reporters in TV because the time crunch is there, and it is very apparent, but it is up to us, I think, as journalists to take a step back and say, are we doing the best to make an impact and actually keep people safe? If not, then what do we need to do to start changing these systems for the better of the communities that are actually impacted by this violence?
Matt: Are you arguing that if we can't add this kind of important context that you're describing, then we shouldn't cover the story at all or maybe not air it that night?
Tauhid: I wouldn't say, not cover the story at all, but reframe, reframe the coverage. One thing that I tell a lot of journalists and something that we try to encourage at Free Press is, let's say for an entire month that crime briefs were put on pause. Let's say, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer's nightly reporter gets a bunch of different press releases from cops but decides not to publish these quick, one-paragraph, police-said crime briefs.
Instead, let's say he notices that a lot of these shootings are happening in Germantown. What if for a month, instead of publishing what police said, he goes in, spends an entire month talking to all the neighborhood people, the Block Captains, the community organizers. He starts to form understanding or context as to why these shootings might be happening, or who the people that are not just behind the gun but the families and the victims and the neighbors.
Instead of having a paragraph story, what if we had multiple paragraphs that actually talked about the neighborhood and said, "Well, this crime has been happening, but we also noticed that this community's poverty has increased, that housing has become unfordable." Having those levels of context and nuance, I think, is something that people would actually want to learn more about these neighborhoods and figure out a way to help support rather than what typically happens is the stereotyping begins when police have the centering of the narrative.
Matt: Could the Philadelphia Inquirer do that for all of the 500+ murders there were in Philly last year?
Tauhid: I'm not sure if they would be able to do 500 stories on that, but nothing stops them from trying. Also, nothing stops them from understanding, is this the type of stories that community members want? Is this the type of story that makes you feel safe or informed? Because, right now, I can tell you, at least in the community organizing and the information that we've received here at Free Press and with our community members, places like the Philadelphia Inquirer and other TV news outlets are not addressing those issues.
Matt: Earlier in the show, I spoke to Laura Bennett. She's the director of the Center for Just Journalism. We talked about a variety of the longstanding issues in crime coverage, like dehumanizing language or the use of passive voice, like saying, "Officers were involved in a shooting, or a bullet killed a girl," instead of officers shot and killed someone. Could we just try to make these improvements, fix this sort of language, avoid dehumanizing words like perp, center communities more. Is there a middle ground to improving the crime beat as opposed to defunding it and removing it entirely?
Tauhid: Can those small reforms happen? Yes, of course, there are ways for reporters and newsrooms now to start using more humanizing language, using more people-first identity-first language. Those are things that a lot of people have been explicitly asking for. Those are changes that all journalists and reporters should be shifting to. Personally, I will always still continue to advocate that the crime beat, as we know it, should be completely abolished.
Why not call that the police accountability beat? Why not call that the community listening beat, and actually look at it from the communities that have been historically harmed by these institutions. What about the public safety beat? This shift is needed now more than ever.
Matt: At WNYC, where I'm a reporter, I'm on the public safety desk. That is what we now call it. It's a subtle, but, I think, significant change.
Tauhid: I applaud that move. I think that that's something that helps, not just journalists understand what they should be covering, but I think it also helps editors reframe how they discover and what they determine is public safety.
Matt: This is work. This is important, necessary work, but we're talking about enormous systemic change to a legacy profession. Are you optimistic?
Tauhid: No, I will be honest. [laughs] I am not.
Matt: You're a true journalist then.
Tauhid: I'm not optimistic given the current health of the industry, but what I am optimistic about is community members and leaders taking up media in their own hands and trying to figure out ways to be better storytellers, and using the resources that they have to tell their own stories.
Matt: Tauhid, thank you for your work. I wish you the best.
Tauhid: Thanks for having me.
Matt: Tauhid Chappell is the Philadelphia Project Manager for News Voices, a nonpartisan organization devoted to bettering journalism.
Matt: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber with help from Aki Camargo. The heavy lifting for this show was done by Max Balton. Xandra Ellen writes our newsletter, and our show is edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lilly. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke will be back in a week. I'm Matt Katz.
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