Covering Urban Violence as a Public Health Problem: Tips from Top Journalists

Published on
July 23, 2010

Reporting on the social and health effects of urban violence without falling victim to stereotypes or clichés is just plain hard. In Thursday's post, I looked at some of the history and context for looking at violence as a public health issue. In this post, some veteran journalists share their tips for reporting on violence and the communities where it is pervasive.

1. Find a guide. They can be social workers, health workers, community activists, even mothers, says journalist Celeste Fremon, who has spent years reporting on gangs and violence in Los Angeles, most notably in her book about Homeboy Industries.  

"Find a guide, and then you'll gradually form relationships of your own," Fremon told our National Health Journalism Fellows at a recent seminar in Los Angeles.

"You go to the community's mothers. You talk to the kid on the bike who's circling the crime scene. You go to the experts who are community members. They're so rarely asked, they'll give you a narrative if you're willing to sit down and talk to them," Fremon said. "I use what I've got – I'm middle aged white lady but I'm a mom. I tell my students, bring who you are. That interest you express in them is huge."

2. Do not use law enforcement members as your guides to a community, at least at first. Distrust of police will extend to you, said Michael Robinson Chavez, a Los Angeles Times photojournalist who worked with reporter Scott Gold on the Times series "Promise and Peril in South L.A.," which touched on this long-troubled community's health challenges. "We had to be really cognizant of what part of the city we were in and who we were with," Chavez said. 

3. Spend considerable time in the community. "Don't just come for a quote for your story," says Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth UpRising, a youth leadership group in Oakland. Chavez agreed, saying that the time he and Gold were given to work on the Times series was invaluable in convincing people that they wanted to do more than stereotype their community.

4. Scrutinize youth services and violence prevention organizations with the same rigor you would use to report on the finances and effectiveness of other institutions on your beat. Too often, journalists give these nonprofits a free ride. In fact, they compete fiercely for limited funds and aren't always effective as they say they are, said Patrick Boyle, editor of the trade publication Youth Today, which covers the youth services field. Here's a good example of this kind of scrutiny, from the Times series.

Boyle requires reporters to request IRS 990 forms, which provide information about expenses, income and salaries, for all organizations they cover. Often, the reporters encounter resistance. "These are do-gooder organizations. You start asking hard questions and you get a reaction: ‘we're not used to this.' We ask for 990s because you never know."

Boyle also urges reporters to examine these organizations' results. "With anti-gun, youth violence prevention, drug prevention, gang prevention work, it's extremely difficult for these programs to show measurable effect. Their subjects move around, very mobile, they move away, go to jail, drop out of school."

"Ask for the measurement tool. And ask about who's doing the measuring," Boyle said. In many cases, the social service organizations are poorly evaluating their work or not evaluating it seriously at all.

Related Posts:

Covering Urban Violence as a Public Health Problem: Context and History