(Photo: phjudge)


Violence has changed over the years. Public perception has not.

Chi-Raq. The most dangerous city in America. The murder capital of the United States.

Titles like these make people think that simply living in Chicago increases the risk of being affected by violence.

Frank Main, a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, has seen this violence first hand, covering crime and criminal justice since the beginning of his career in 1987. What started out as an entryway into the Tulsa World soon became a path he would follow to the Chicago Sun-Times in 1998. He even has won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Having spent almost two decades on that beat, he has certainly seen changes in the crime patterns of Chicago, but has also been an observer to the city’s lack of progress in its response to violence.

“I see the same things occurring over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day,” Main said.

According to the Chicago Murder Analysis report, the number of murders per year peaked in 1992 at 943. This number has been on a steady decline ever since.

However, given recent headlines and the proliferate crime coverage by the media, some may be surprised to learn that the late 2000s tallied some of the lowest violent crime rates this city has seen in decades.

“People tend to have a short memory of how violent Chicago has been in the past,” Main said.

Dr. Arthur Lurigio is the director for Loyola University Chicago’s Center for the Advancement of Research, Training and Education in addition to his work in psychology and criminology.

He notes that there has been an “uptick” in the number of homicides this year, as 2016 has passed 700 murders, rates across the country and in Chicago itself are the lowest they have ever been.

Why, then, does Chicago’s perception as one of the most dangerous cities persist?

Several factors contribute to the media’s disproportionate coverage of crime in Chicago.

The 24 hour news cycle, social media and the shift from print to digital have all affected the public perception of the issue.

Jeremy Gorner, a journalist who has been covering crime in Chicago for 11 years, currently works for the Chicago Tribune as the beat reporter for the police department. He covers topics ranging from street crime and policy to police misconduct.

“The 24 news cycle has really changed a lot,” he said. “We have reporters working around the clock on news stories.”

This allows for more frequent coverage of crime. Lurigio said it is a “major area of interest of the general public” that readers expect in the news cycle.

Lurigio said that gang violence has changed over the past few decades. Many of the gangs, in which “there was some motivation to maintain control over violence” have been dismantled, and crime is less organized with fewer people calling the shots.

Innocent bystanders are at a higher risk of being killed because murders take place more publicly in riskier methods, such as drive-by shootings.

“What makes us so angst-ridden in Chicago…are the deaths of people that are incidental,” Lurigio said.

Gorner also said that social media has affected the public’s awareness by reaching a different audience.

“Younger audiences don’t really read newspapers, they get everything online,” he said. “Social media has done a lot to increase awareness beyond the more traditional mediums.”

In addition, the shift from print to digital platforms and the presence of social media affects the amount of coverage and the type that is prioritized.

Main said that initially, papers were accused of “cherry-picking” murders that were the most sensational, because there was only so much space a daily newspaper could allow for crime stories. With the dawn of the digital era, much more reporting could be published online.

Main said that for a number of reasons, “we decided to cover every single murder.”

After a particularly bloody Memorial Day Weekend in 2009, the Sun-Times created Homicide Watch, a community oriented news site, to document every murder in the city.

Main noted that this came from good intentions to provide equal coverage, but said “this coverage will make you think that you’re in a super dangerous place.”

Headlines that have resulted from this trend utilize scoreboard reporting tactics, which read “X many shot this weekend, this many dead,” and are typically on the front page or at the top of the homepage every Monday morning.

Main said that the news also operates as a business with online traffic driving sales.

“You would be surprised at what kind of clicks you get from readers from those types of stories,” he said.

While these stories may have been intended to keep the public informed, they have had other unintended consequences.

“I think the media has an obligation to be truthful with the public,” Lurigio said. “Scoreboard reporting, however, only serves to make people more fearful of crime. It always serves to fuel the perception that the city as a whole is dangerous.”

Finding the balance between truthful, inclusive coverage and painting a realistic picture of the situation is difficult.

“As reporters, we approach every story with neutrality. That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Gorner said. “But you’re not going to please everybody.”

Main also has issues with the current state of the media. He said that if you do not live in certain neighborhoods and have no gang affiliations, you are unlikely to encounter violence-related issues.

“I struggle to write stories that provide that perspective,” he said.“It’s hard when you have the daily drumbeat of violence coverage to tell people that nuanced message that it’s not everyone, it’s a small segment of society that is being subjected to unbelievable levels of violence.”

Main said his profession needs to “redesign the daily drumbeat and have reporters who can look at patterns and explain to people the context of what’s going on out there,” and that as long as that style of reporting is in place, there is hope for more nuanced coverage.

“If we lose that aspect of reporting, it just goes to a daily police blotter.”

Filed under: Violence

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