With a summit on justice issues just passed, it’s a good time to ask if the local newspaper can be a part of the discussion, or is part of the problem.
Take, for instance, last Tuesday’s front page (November 9, 2010). Four teens were arrested in Georgia for a murder at a party that got out of hand. The story was sensationalism. That’s not a dig. During my tenure as a newspaper editor many, many years ago, a story being sensational was enough reason to run it. One editor I worked with called them “Hey, Mabel” stories. Others referred to them as back-fence stories. You run them because people are talking or because you want them to.
What’s less understandable is the information the newspaper chose to run about those arrested. Their names, ages, and addresses did not appear in the story. The only identifying information was their surnames, run underneath photos cropped so tightly they purveyed only one fact about the suspects: They were black.
Race is an overwhelming issue in discussions of American justice. Poor people are statistically more likely to fall into the justice system, or to be born into it. African-Americans who are born into poverty are statistically less likely to get out.
Those are nuances that a newspaper realistically can’t include in every crime story that mentions minority suspects. But in a story like the one in Douglasville, Georgia, (halfway between Atlanta and Alabama) there are questions that a newspaper with the DNR’s history should ask before those in the community do.
Does the paper’s ownership have a history of racism? For instance, did the same family invent the concept of Massive Resistance? Has the paper ever disingenuously called the President of the United States a monkey? (The headline was “Primate Obama”.) Does the paper run editorials attacking Muslims? Does the paper run exaggerated editorials about undocumented immigrants? (With exaggerated being a generous description of their accuracy.)
More specifically, is there any reason to put this story on page one? Does it reflect a national trend? Does it reflect a social problem that may affect the Valley? Is it anything other than an unfortunate fluke, a teen party that got out of hand?
And, finally, why run the mug shots? Is it so that, if they’re guilty, we can be warned to look out for them on the streets of Harrisonburg when they get out of prison a generation from now?
The DNR could argue that running the mugs stops just short of racism. It’s just sensationalism. But if fear and local news are the only things the paper has to compete with online news, you’d think they’d run more local news.
This post was submitted by JGFitzgerald.