Editorial by Jerry Sullivan, L.A. Beez/New America Media
LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Times offers a measure of good news for the City of Angels just days before a downbeat 2010 comes to a close.
“Killing in L.A. Drops to 1967 Levels,” reads the headline above the fold on December 27.
The story detailed the continued trend of declines in homicides, which peaked at 1,092 in 1992. The current rate has the city on pace to see fewer than 300 killings for the first time in 40 years.
The difference is nearly 800 lives—not to mention 800 families shattered by loss and 800 suspects or convicted killers drawing public resources for investigations, court cases and incarcerations.
The Times gave credit to the Los Angeles Police Department, and the agency deserves the citation. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has managed to keep homicides on a downward trend despite the everyday pressures of an historically tough economy and a city budget crunch that has cut into the resources he can deploy to fight crime.
Now consider a brief news item that ran on page 4 of the second section in the same edition of the newpaper. It provided a few details of the murder on Christmas Day of a woman named Kashmier James. A pair of gunmen shot the woman dead in front of her daughter in a vehicle at 85th Street and Western Avenue in South Los Angeles.
The Times reported that there have been 137 murders within a two-mile radius of the scene of James’ death since January 2007. That context came from its web-based Homicide Report, a laudable effort to bring new technological capabilities to newspaper reporting. The feature combines the unlimited capacity of the Internet with data-crunching software.
The apparent aim of the Homicide Report is to provide a greater understanding of the communities the Times covers.
The result—at least in the case of the front-page story on the declines in total homicides and the brief item pointing to a severe problem in a specific area of Los Angeles—indicates that the so-called “mainstream” media aren’t up to the job.
The front-page story mentioned a big turnaround on homicides in the West Adams district, a section of the city just south of the Santa Monica Freeway. The enclave has a population of about 22,000 and saw 17 homicides from 2007 to 2009, according to the Times. There hasn’t been one murder in West Adams this year.
The story gave a nod to an increased police presence and community involvement as keys to the turnaround in West Adams, which, it so happens, has seen a fair share of gentrification.
The story also offered the following on a couple of areas that remain ethnic to the core in terms of reality and perception: The Watts district in South Los Angeles, which still has a large African-American population; and the Westlake district west of downtown, a densely packed home to many immigrant Latinos.
“A few neighborhoods, including Watts and Westlake, have struggled with homicide rates that have not declined significantly over the last four years,” the Times reported.
The report offered no insights on the stubbornly high homicide rates in Watts and Westlake.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood around 85th and Western is neither Watts nor Westlake. That’s about all we can deduce from the brief item on James’ death, which offered no understanding of the area beside the fact that it’s the epicenter of a killing field despite the overall declines in homicides in the city.
The point is that the Los Angeles Times and other members of the “mainstream” media—for all the challenges they face in a shifting industry—still have the greatest ability to gather information.
And they still don’t know how to consider and analyze information in ways that address the life of the entire city and bring the sort of context that provides common ground for its readership.
That’s the Times’ problem, to a great degree.
Yet it’s also a problem for many of the communities that make up Los Angeles.
Who will tell their stories?
Who will explain that the wonderful news on fewer killings doesn’t extend to the entire city?
Who will figure out what’s going on in that two-mile stretch of South L.A. that has resisted the vast improvements in public safety of recent years?
Who are the elected officials who represent the area?
What are they doing?
What nonprofits are getting government funds to make the area a better place?
What have they done?
How many cops are assigned to the streets of the area?
How are those numbers determined?
How are the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who live on those streets doing?
It appears that the mainstream media lack the will and therefore the ability to ask and answer those questions.
That leaves it up to the publications that serve the various communities of our city—including the many ethnic media outlets—to take on the challenge.
This does not require a fancy website or a bunch of number-crunching software. It will come from covering the lives of your readers. Forget about talking heads and political players and celebrities. Get in touch with the folks who do the living and dying and working and playing and praying and sinning in the neighborhoods.
Anything less will leave it to others to tell the story of our communities—or to leave them untold.
That’s no way to do the job of journalism.
And, by the way, it’s no long-range business plan, either.