I was at a suburban holiday party before Christmas and began telling several people about my work as a high school teacher in Baltimore. As I sipped my beer, the conversation quickly turned to the topic of crime in the city. Murders, robberies, car jackings, squeegee boys.
Two people said they refuse to go into the city.
I remarked that out of the dozens of teenagers I see at school each day, none are violent criminals, nor are any of them on the way to becoming ones as far as I can tell. In fact, most are great kids: thoughtful, kind, ready to learn.
But I doubt my assurances did much to ease anyone’s concerns, especially since the city recently eclipsed its highest per-capita homicide rate on record.
Some students carry the trauma of violence with them. Several current students are palpably anxious about traveling back and forth from home to school. Some parents make sure to find rides to school for their kids so that they don’t have to walk or catch an MTA bus. At the end of the school day, students often say “bye” to each other with a quick “be safe.” This is not something I had to say to friends or classmates growing up.
It can all feel like too much. Too much mourning. Too much untold suffering. Too much anxiety.
And, yet, the local media makes matters worse by exploiting our fears and by distorting our perceptions about the criminality of black communities and particularly black men.
An evening rarely passes in Baltimore without the nightly TV newscasts offering brief, lurid accounts of violent crime. These “breaking news” stories typically run less than 30 seconds. Never mind the urgency of these broadcasts. A viewer expecting a more contextualized follow-up later — one in which those affected by the violence would be illuminated and brought into sharper focus — would be disappointed.
Crime reporting in Baltimore usually takes place in historically disenfranchised black neighborhoods. Although the vast majority of people living in areas of concentrated poverty are not violent criminals, local media coverage perpetuates stereotypes that associate black people with crime.
Research conducted by Temple Northup, a professor of communications at the University of Houston, found that “Viewers who watched more local television news demonstrated more unconscious negative attitudes toward African-Americans, ” according to an article in Vox. Moreover, a story in the Washington Post described studies that found “… when the news media constantly associates black people with crime, it increases racial stereotypes among viewers.”
Reinforcing toxic narratives about black communities likely has real-life consequences for students in my classroom. As the seniors at my school draw closer to graduating and moving forward with their lives, will stereotypes advanced by the media make it harder for these young adults to find a job, to get an apartment, to secure a loan or to receive fair treatment by the police?
And, in Baltimore, whether these crime stories appear on television, online or in print media, there is a recurrent, almost obsessive, emphasis on counting murders and sometimes comparing this year’s count to previous years’ counts, or, during especially violent years like 2019, speculating on whether that year’s count will surpass Baltimore’s highest count ever: 1993’s 353.
Frequently, these quick-hitting news items are so thin and dismissive — little more than basic facts such as date, time, gender of victim, location of shooting — that it feels like the counting is the sole point.
All of the tallying can feel like news reporters are keeping score, and the unthinkable gets thought: Do news outlets reporting crime want the number of homicides to be bigger or smaller?
It’s a vile question, but the public’s hunger for crime stories makes crime coverage a mainstay of news outlets in lots of markets. And in a macabre inversion, a small number of murdered is a less compelling news story than a large number. Perhaps this explains why the local media’s ghoulish fetish for counting murders intensifies as the year goes on and the number of dead increase.
On my desk at school I keep a box of Kleenex, and I’m grateful to be able to offer this small gesture to grieving students when needed. Over the years, I’ve sometimes reached for the Kleenex myself, for I’ve had to do my own counting. Long ago, I ran out of enough fingers and toes to add up all the students I’ve known who’ve been murdered.
Let’s hope violence in Baltimore falls steeply in 2020. Let’s also hope the local media dials back crime coverage that exploits struggling communities already bearing the burden of so much grief.
Adam Schwartz (https://adamschwartzwriter.org) has taught high school in Baltimore for 22 year. His stories have appeared in numerous literary journals.