Journalists debate news coverage tactics

By Mischa Fierer

A panel of four journalists discussed human-rights reporting in Chicago last Thursday, focusing specifically on recent allegations of police brutality committed by Chicago police officers that have raised questions about media handling of the issue.

According to the panelists, residents of public housing without high crime rates rarely consider how human-rights issues factor into their lives. Beauty Turner, a reporter who covers low-income public housing, argued that this attitude is naïve.

“What happens in public housing will affect you,” Turner stated.

The panelists tackled the issue of what human-rights reporting encompasses, agreeing that a reporter’s story must take a “street level” perspective rather than approaching the issue from a “policy level.” A potential pitfall, they said, is relying on city officials rather than everyday people as sources. According to the panelists, everyday people are the ones experiencing the effects of police brutality and discriminatory housing.

The panel was moderated by journalist Steve Rhodes, a former reporter for major Chicago newspapers, whose website, The Beachwood Reporter, critiques the coverage of his former employers.

Jamie Kalven, a writer and human-rights advocate, said there is a lack of “institutional investment” in reporting on human rights. According to Kalven, big papers need to care more about what happens on the street level. Kalven’s father was a professor at the University and chair of the committee that created the Kalven Report, which dictates the U of C’s stance on social issues.

Other panelists included John Conroy, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader and author of books on police torture, and Salome Chasnoff, an “artist activist” who works on increasing media coverage of women.

Some of the panelists had different positions on the neutrality of a story. John Conroy claimed to write more balanced articles because he tries to maintain objectivity.

“I don’t advocate for reform. I don’t attend demonstrations as a participant. I don’t speak at rallies. I report what happens,” Conroy said.

Turner said she finds it difficult not to take sides. “I classify myself as a fighter and a writer,” she said. Turner noted that she often asks reporters whether, upon seeing a lady on fire, they would pull out a notebook and write about it or use water to douse the flames.

“I figure I see my lady on fire…. If I can put her out with words, I will do it,” Turner said, explaining her belief that the public housing community needs assistance.

Approximately 50 people attended the discussion. The event was organized by the Students for Human Rights and funded by Student Government and the Norman Wait Harris Memorial Grant, among others.