The Commercial Appeal’s first major investigation of 2017 is an exhaustive six-part series “exploring the staggering gun violence problem in Memphis.”
Complete with interactive graphics, dozens of photos of crime scenes, reams of data and six podcast episodes, the “Wounded City” series represents hundreds of hours of work by journalists on a staff that shrunk by 23 following layoffs in April.
The series reflects the paper’s priorities, but is also an extension of the fear mongering about black communities that many readers have come to expect.
Exhibit A: Tuesday’s headline, “Terror In The Air.”
Terror is a racialized word — wielded when the suspects are black or brown but not when the suspect is white — so we’re not surprised to see that The Commercial Appeal turned to this label, pairing it with a picture of four black male youth, naked from the waist up, peering onto a stretcher where another shirtless black youth lays, injured.
Here’s why this matters: Research shows that white people wildly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people. These misperceptions lead them to back punitive criminal justice policies, such as stiffer sentences.
And in a city and county where black people are in the majority but underrepresented in the places where criminal justice policy is shaped, such as the Shelby County Crime Commission or the Tennessee state legislature, these negative, oversized portrayals do real measurable harm to black people.
Gun violence, by the way, is down in the first quarter of 2017 when compared to the first quarter of 2016 — but that story was buried in the print version and isn’t easy to find online. (We’re not linking to the series because we don’t want to reward these choices with clicks.)
Clearly the CA has the muscle to explore serious issues, although the paper’s editors chose to run the solutions-focused part at the end, after readers have been flooded with tragic stories.
We asked MLK50 readers to tell us six topics on which The Commercial Appeal could have chosen to devote its resources to investigate. Here’s what they said.
Instead of gun violence, report this
- How does the power and wealth built by modern-day companies that exploited black labor/profited from slavery shape the Memphis we see today?
- How did Shelby County Schools end up with $500 million in deferred maintenance and what is the impact of subpar learning environments on student achievement?
- What would it take to get a child performing several grade levels behind to catch up?
- What’s the impact of an inadequate mass transit system on the city’s growth?
- What can the private and public sector do to boost black businesses, which received less than 1 percent of business receipts citywide?
- Why does Juvenile Court continue to treat black children more harshly than white children five years after the U.S. Department of Justice uncovered the patterns of discrimination?
If a newspaper this much energy into an investigative series, the reader should expect that she or he is going to hear something new. (Worth noting: The Commercial Appeal has no African-American investigative reporters and hasn’t in more than 15 years. None of the bylines on this package are of African-American journalists.)
But so far, “Wounded City” hasn’t done that. Of the five (so far) community editorials that accompany the package, three merely amplify the perspective of the establishment. Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, Shelby County Crime Commission Director Bill Gibbons, and Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich all received a platform to say what they’ve said in other settings.
An excerpt from the series’ introduction:
The Commercial Appeal launches a special explanatory series today on these pages — “Wounded City” — not to defame the city or unnecessarily spread fear but to aim a hot light on the massive challenge we face as a community. Somehow, perversely, we seem to accept our runaway gun violence as normal.
How many times have you heard these three words to explain the carnage?
“It’s Just Memphis.”
It shouldn’t be. It can’t be.
There is nothing normal about innocent children being killed by indiscriminate gunfire. Or three teenagers, best friends, killed within a few months of each other. We can never grow so callous or numb that five murders in a weekend are rationalized with those three words.
“It’s Just Memphis.” We at MLK50 have never heard that phrase in reference to gun violence. The CA does not say who has used these three words or where those people live.
We can look at all the initiatives and community leaders working to stem the tide and know that people in the neighborhoods most affected are neither callous or numb.
The CA offers no proof that gun violence has been accepted as normal — but perpetuating that notion serves to paint these communities as abberant. The paper compares gun violence in some Memphis neighborhoods to the violence in Central American countries, again trading in the racism that says that violence is something inherent to black and brown bodies.
It’s no wonder that some readers respond with their own racist monikers, like this one on Facebook: Welcome to MEMPHADISHU!
To be sure, the series had its critics online, including these posts on the paper’s Facebook page.
So what are some other topics that the Commercial Appeal could choose to focus on? Send us an email at email@example.com or hit us up on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag: #6partseries.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Read about why this matters. “Whites greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people,” Washington Post.
Read more about why this matters. “[N]egative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men. These portrayals, constantly reinforced in print media, on television, the internet, fiction shows, print advertising and video games, shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color. They not only help create barriers to advancement within our society, but also ‘make these positions seem natural and inevitable.’” From “When the media misrepresents black men, the effects are felt in the real world,” as published in The Guardian, written by Leigh Donaldson.
Contact the paper’s new executive editor, Mark Russell, at firstname.lastname@example.org about this series or with any concerns or compliments you have for The CA.
Read the July 12 apology issued by former executive editor Louis Graham following a racially insensitive headline about the fatal shooting of Dallas police officers.
Excerpt: “In an environment so fraught with anger and anxiety we added unnecessary fuel. That’s not our role. Ours is to explore and explain. The headline required restraint and we didn’t provide it.”
Read the May 26 apology issued by then interim executive editor Mark Russell following a misleading photo of a brawl at Arlington High School’s graduation. The brawlers were white but the front page photo focused on a black woman.
Excerpt: “It was never our intention to misrepresent what happened in the fight or who engaged in the brawl. But I understand readers’ anger over the image, especially given The CA’s history on matters of race.”