CRIME IS NEWS, big news. People read it, at times devour it, so a newspaper has a natural inclination to run crime stories. When, as has occured in Washington, serious crime takes its highest jump in a decade, rising by one-third in the most recent comparison with the 1979 figures, the natural interest in crime is heightened.
A wide array of styles and approaches to the portrayal of crime exists among American newspapers, ranging from the sensational to the sedate, and, it's safe to say, not one has managed to hit upon exactly the right formula for the thorny problem of portrayal.
Now I recognize it's a ticklish position for a columnist for one newspaper to criticize the opposition, but The Washington Star's "answer" to this problem of crime coverage is, to my mind, part of the problem, not the solution. The Star's new front-page feature entitled "Today's Violent Local Crime" -- usually a thumbnail sketch of some grisly rape, beating or murber -- strikes me as not only cheap and sensational but also potentially further divisive to the already taut social fabric in this town.
This way of portraying crime has a terribly negative effect on the tone of the whole metropolitan area, and especially the city, and it feeds the fear, terror and paranoia that people already have. It plays to the kind of alienation that divides a city and Lord knows, we have paranoia enough. One confirmed anti-handgun resident speaks now of carrying a giant flashlight -- in effect, a club -- when strolling the streets of his quiet neighborhood.
The Star's ombudsman, George Beveridge, said the feature reflects the editor's intention to "focus more attention on the degree to which violent crime has become part of the life of all of us in the metropolitan community. . .that the subject of violent crime deserves as much attention as the community can give it . . . . [They] decided there is some community service purpose in emphasizing this."
Try telling that to black Washingtonians whose phones have been buzzing, crackling with concern over this innovation.
To be sure, all newspapers -- this one included -- have a particularly wide credibility gap with black people in the way they report crime. There's usually scant social context. When somebody important and white in town gets shot, it's important news, whereas all the somebodies who are unimportant and black rate hardly a line when they meet violence. Every black has heard the story of the rookie reporter on a midwestern daily who called his editor with his first "great story" -- a triple murder. The editor asked the rookie where the trio had resided. Upon hearing the address in a black neighborhood, the editor replied, "Three dead -- Write three inches."
Conversely, when the killer is black and the victim is black, it doesn't seem to count as much as when the vitim is white and the killer is black, or even when both victim and killer are white. (The case of Bernard Welch, the alleged murderer of physician Michael Halberstam, is no exception, although the public outrage may make it impossible for him to slip through the insanity noose as do so many white criminals -- and so few black ones.)
It's against the backdrop of that media credibility gap that blacks have expressed particular alarm over The Star's new feature.
"It's blatant racism," one woman said. "It harks back to the era when all black men were considered rapists," a black professional man said. "It's silly and cheap," said a woman. And yet another said she'd not seen it every day, but the ones she'd read "seemed most interested in showing whites as victims." Said one father of a teen-age son: "People are already terrified of black teen-age boys. When we go in places, I can see people recoil and look at him negatively. Of course, he is a little scruffy, but you couldn't meet a nicer kid."
A white woman, a transplanted New Yorker new to the city, blames some of the sensational handling of crime news in the city for its fear and group divisiveness. "In New York, I saw a degeneration. People read them [crime stories] and got more and more terrified. The subways eventually did become a jungle."
Both the Post and the Star tend to have more thorough coverage of the District of Columbia than of the suburban areas. Although crime outside the city is spiraling too, since the city is 76 percent black, most of the criminals written ab out will be black. So the media's natural concentration persists in keeping intact Richard Nixon's old appelation of Washington as the "Crime Capital of the nation."
None of us -- black or white -- likes or wants crime in our city, and fear of crime, already widespread, is growing. The fact that most of the crime in the city is black-on-black ironically does not change the stereotype of blacks as violent and the city as a violent and unsafe place. And far too little is explained of how America's economic bondage spawns black crime.Nobody questions the value of crime as news. What has to be questioned, however, is this flashy featurizing, the search for the day's violent local crime as if it were some precious pearl. All the papers would be better served to look beneath the violence to the mentality spawning the violence. We'd all be better served to find out what's bothering us so much, what makes the richest nation in the world also the most violent.
But a measure of how far away we are from that is that we're still debating the thorny question of how newspapers cover violence. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But of one thing I feel certain. "Today's Violent Local Crime" ain't it.