Community members critique media at forum

by Sara Goo

Local news coverage doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the community and doesn’t dig into the root causes of society’s problems, a group of community members said Friday.
About 100 journalists and people from the community gathered at the University’s Law Center to discuss the problems journalists have in trying to meet the needs of the community and how they can improve their coverage.
Although the conference, “Journalists, Violence and the News,” was designed to talk about issues of race and violence portrayed in the news, many community members took advantage of their time with journalists to discuss many other concerns.
The idea behind the conference is that journalists should undergo the same scrutiny as the business and public people they scrutinize, said Gary Gilson, director of the Minnesota News Council, a non-profit organization that hears public complaints against news media.
After a few keynote speakers, the evenly divided crowd of media representatives and citizens met in groups of 12 to more intimately talk about specific problems and solutions.
“The problem I have with the coverage is that it’s so shallow,” said Shirley Stone, a representative from the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
To this complaint, a small group of both journalists and community members nodded their heads in agreement.
The problem is that journalists often cover events, such as crimes, only after they happen and the stories don’t reflect the underlying reasons for why the crimes happened, one group agreed. Too often, crimes are written off as “drug-related” or “gang-related” and the root of the problem is ignored, some community members said.
One example of so-called bad news coverage put forth was the recent story about a south Minneapolis man who killed his girlfriend’s baby and then himself. Local media said the man did this because he was upset that his girlfriend had an abortion.
Cindy Anderson, from Womens Advocates in St. Paul, said this kind of story reinforces the idea that such a horrible crime was the woman’s fault.
“It certainly impacts what the victims see their role as and how they see solutions,” Anderson said.
Instead, this story should have discussed why the man was so angry and what the history was of the couple. The abortion could have just been the last straw for this man, Anderson said.
Crime stories in particular do not encourage people to react to the crime, said Rose Esca¤ar, who works with a St. Paul girls’ advocacy program.
“Do something that would encourage people to get active, not just (be) passive,” Esca¤ar said.
Journalists acknowledged that they could improve their coverage, but they also cited problems in getting more in-depth coverage.
“I do whatever I’m told to do that day,” said Brian Lucas, a reporter for WKBT-TV in La Crosse.
Lucas said deadline pressure and sometimes a “newsroom culture” prevents him from spending time on in-depth stories or addressing issues he feels are important. The “newsroom culture” refers to the ideas of editors and reporters about what qualifies as news and which news is important.
Lucas said he often gets discouraged because sometimes people are unwilling to talk to him when he is trying to get information for a story.
“There has to be a two-way street in helping the community to cover crime,” Lucas said.
Many community members were upset that local television stations did not send a representative to the forum. The organizers for the conference said they did not show up because this week was “sweeps week” — the period in which television ratings are monitored.
“If there was a bomb threat would they be here?” said Becky Shear of Community Connection, a partnership group that advocates community involvement.
Other topics included the need to cover communities of color more accurately or thoroughly, not just when it is “Cinco de Mayo,” for example.
After the small group discussion, the conference members met as a whole and filled an entire blackboard with problems and solutions in media coverage.
Some solutions included having an advisory council made of community members who would talk about the coverage of a particular news medium. Another idea was to create more access for feedback to the media, like having a more accessible means of giving reporters and editors feedback on stories.
Although the group didn’t immediately adopt any concrete solutions, the media representatives were encouraged to take the information back to their newsrooms to make changes. The Minnesota News Council and Minnesota Public Radio, who sponsored the event, discussed ideas for further gatherings of journalists and community groups.