A Commentary by Miguel Alvelo: Universidad Popular Member.
Right before our first summer block party of 2014 on July 24 Universidad Popular received news that ABC7 would be swinging by to report on our collectively planned event. Excitedly, we prepared to greet the news reporters and show them the best that Universidad Popular (UP), its partners, and our community had to offer. The event was a thorough success. Thousands of residents participated, and we were able to showcase a portion of the wonderful things we do every day at our community center. We thought the news would reflect these efforts, the positive energy that surrounded the event, and would highlight the people—our community members who were at the center of planning and facilitating the party—but we failed to see that their agenda was very different from what we expected.
When the news reporter Ravi Baichwal[i] asked UP’s Abraham Celio “So, what usually happens on this street when there’s not a block party?” he replied with the truth: “well, on a normal day you’ll see members of the community walking into our center to participate in yoga, zumba, computer classes, etc; you’ll see youth getting ready for a bike ride around the neighborhood, or working on building and maintaining our sidewalk community garden…” The reporter, seemingly unhappy with Abraham’s response insisted on asking the question again: “Yeah, that’s great, but… what really happens on the streets on a normal day?” Abraham was taken aback by the clear twisting of the question and the insistence on getting a response that fit hidden intentions. He replied once more with the truth and remained firm in explaining what the real issues were in the community, why we believe they need to be addressed and how we were doing that. Needless to say, that part of Abraham’s interview was not used in the final report. Instead, the reporter continued asking others until he coerced the response he was looking for from one of our youth.
Ravi clearly states: “make no mistake, what’s happening here now is not how it usually is.” The report explicitly and implicitly continually says that this is “a block normally dominated by gang members.” It implies that there is a constant fear amongst residents that they might get shot, or that something bad will be done to them. The sad realization is that ABC7 wasn’t there to report on the event; they were there to gather footage and interviews for a “report” that was already written and for questions that they had already answered.
While media bias[ii] is not “news” (no pun intended) to critical thinkers, it is sickening to think that it is done so purposefully and explicitly. Renowned scholar and urban policy analyst Peter Dreier demonstrates such blatant bias in his article entitled “How the Media Compound Urban Problems[iii]” by revealing that two-thirds of all news in the 56 U.S. cities he studied focused on reporting violent crimes. Most of these crimes that are reported about are focused on inner-city areas and predominantly show non-whites as the perpetrators of the majority of crimes.
Chicago is sadly a common case study for negative racially biased reporting. In one such study performed by J. Ettema and L. Peer[iv], they looked at two distinct neighborhoods: a poor, black neighborhood, and a white, middle-class neighborhood. They found that reporting about social problems, crime, and drugs was overrepresented for the poor, black neighborhood (2/3 of stories), whereas the stories on the white, middle-class neighborhood were predominantly positive and only mentioned crime and drugs on about 1/4th of the reports. Honestly, one doesn’t even need to perform a peer-reviewed study to see such bias in our local media’s reporting. A simple google news search shows a clear bias toward reporting that violent crimes are a part of daily life in our impoverished and non-white neighborhoods.
Here’s our headquarter’s neighborhood: Little Village.
Here’s our new sister headquarters: Chicago Lawn.
And here’s Wicker Park:
And Lincoln Square:
The news media does not just “report” facts. They broadcast “the news,” in essence: what is important and what is not. As these screenshots show it’s also not simply about “what sells”—the argument that only dramatic or violent news are what viewers seek and want to consume falls by the wayside here. If this was the case, we’d see violent news reporting dominating every neighborhood report. There’s a clear bias showing that non-white neighborhoods are dangerous, violent, and “poor.” By saying that crime is the norm in our impoverished neighborhoods and not mentioning other realities, they create stereotypes that translate into real disadvantages in terms of investment, resource-allocation, and policy creation and implementation.
As a resident of Little Village and as a member of a community organization who seeks to reach community empowerment through participatory learning I’ve felt the need to publicly talk out against this horrible and gross misrepresentation of our block, our youth, and our neighbors. In many ways, our “impoverished” neighborhoods are richer than most of their wealthier neighbors. They are filled with working class people who, in spite of meager earnings and long work hours, dedicate whatever time is left to them to improve their lives, their families, and their community. Our neighborhoods are filled with mothers and fathers who organize, lead, and learn from each other; who plan block parties, who get together every night of the week to gain skills that will help them communicate better with their families and those around them. Our neighborhoods are filled with people who truly want to overcome every single barrier that is put in front of them; who have sacrificed all selflessly for the benefit of the future: our children, our youth. It is exactly the youth who are always being targeted by the real gangbangers: the police, the media, the politicians, and above all—the wealthy individuals and interest groups who control them.
I reject and protest these assumptions that our youth are crime-prone individuals that are in dire need of “outside aid” or “salvation.” Focusing on these stereotypes of the “poor criminal” does nothing to help our youth. It only helps perpetuate perceptions that encourage further disinvestment and dis-empowerment. At Universidad Popular we understand that the best way to address the problems of violence, crime, and poverty in our neighborhoods is by empowering residents; block-to-block we facilitate discussions, provide services, and are a safe space where all can gather, learn from each other and plan a safe, healthy, strong, and just community. A series of one-time city block parties will do nothing to lower gang activity, prevent violence, or address the real root issues that are the cause of these problems. We believe in a year-long/life-long project of community empowerment that constantly evolves based on the needs of our communities. We collaborate with whomever shares this goal and vision with us, with whomever is willing to help us out in whatever way they can or want. But, we are not beholden to the whims of a few powerful individuals that need us from time to time to improve their political standing and we are definitely not beholden to the half-truths others say about our community.
[i] The report from ABC7: http://abc7chicago.com/family/chicago-kids-take-back-the-streets-on-playstreets-day-/217053/
[ii] Another media bias resource: https://suite.io/liz-mccormick/213b2nt
[iii] Dreier, Peter. 2005. “How the Media Compound Urban Problems,” Journal of Urban
- 27:2. 193-201.
[iv] Ettema, James and Limor Peer. 1996. “Good News from a Bad Neighborhood: Toward
an Alternative to the Discourse of Urban Pathology.” Journalism and Mass
Communication Quarterly. 73:4. 835-856