How do you define a community? Is it possible to do it in 1,000 words? Or in an hour-long radio or video documentary?
Think how hard it is to define yourself, or any one person, with all their complexities and contradictions. Then multiply that by the thousands of people in a given Chicago neighborhood, with all the structural, historical and socioeconomic context that surrounds them.
It’s a daunting challenge for any journalist or storyteller.
These thoughts went through my head during the provocative discussion at the “Truth & Trust” panel discussion hosted by the Poynter Institute, Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Medill and other partners in Chicago on September 4.
Journalists and community leaders both on the panel and in the audience discussed how the media covers violence and violence-plagued communities in Chicago, and how our city came to be known as “Chiraq” and the “murder capital” even though its murder rates are actually lower than past years and than other cities.
As I described in a post for Poynter, local reporters are caught in something of a catch 22 wherein their admirable commitment to comprehensive coverage of violence across the city has stoked the city’s negative image and made many residents feel they are being stigmatized or pigeonholed.
Panelist Asiaha Butler noted how her community, Englewood, has become an international poster child for violence and dysfunction while little attention is given to positive developments and the multi-generational rich social structures that also define the neighborhood. Along those same lines, a youth advocate from Roseland countered that her community struggles to get attention to their problems, because do-gooders and journalists are so fixated on Englewood!
A goal of the Social Justice News Nexus is to portray the complexity and interplay of different issues in neighborhoods throughout Chicago, ideally opening a space to air untold stories and help residents tell their own stories, while also practicing old-fashioned accountability watchdog journalism – looking at the systemic factors that underlie individual human stories.
SJNN fellow Ahmed Hamad’s documentary on several blocks in the West Side Austin neighborhood is a notable example of a reporter and artist really taking the time to get to know a community and the people who live there, to watch their stories unfold without rushing to conclusions, to involve people in the telling of their own stories.
At this moment in Chicago I feel lucky to be in a rich media ecosystem where the old-fashioned ideals of journalistic “objectivity” are being replaced or joined by a commitment to social justice and to “truth and trust.”