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Aiyana Stanley-Jones, South Philadelphia High, and Solving the News Problem

May 28, 2010

On yesterday's Racialicious blog, Progressive Women's Voices alum and writer Latoya Peterson analyzes the mainstream media's failure to cover the "other" of news stories to our national detriment, as demonstrated in the coverage of the police shooting of 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.

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Aiyana Stanley-Jones, South Philadelphia High, and Solving the News Problem

by Latoya Peterson Racialicious, 5/27/10

Earlier this month, I was mulling over a piece in The Atlantic about the decline of the news, and Google’s attempts to assist the ailing industry. I found this tidbit fascinating:

“If you were starting from scratch, you could never possibly justify this business model,” Hal Varian [Google's chief economist ] said, in a variation on a familiar tech-world riff about the print-journalism business. “Grow trees—then grind them up, and truck big rolls of paper down from Canada? Then run them through enormously expensive machinery, hand-deliver them overnight to thousands of doorsteps, and leave more on newsstands, where the surplus is out of date immediately and must be thrown away? Who would say that made sense?” The old-tech wastefulness of the process is obvious, but Varian added a less familiar point. Burdened as they are with these “legacy” print costs, newspapers typically spend about 15 percent of their revenue on what, to the Internet world, are their only valuable assets: the people who report, analyze, and edit the news. Varian cited a study by the industry analyst Harold Vogel showing that the figure might reach 35 percent if you included all administrative, promotional, and other “brand”-related expenses. But most of the money a typical newspaper spends is for the old-tech physical work of hauling paper around. Buying raw newsprint and using it costs more than the typical newspaper’s entire editorial staff. (The pattern is different at the two elite national papers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They each spend more on edit staff than on newsprint, which is part of the reason their brands are among the most likely to survive the current hard times.)

Krishna Bharat (Distinguished Researcher at Google) puts an even finer point on the problems with the existing news model. Bharat runs Google News, the aggregator that sifts through “25,000 sources in some 25 languages” daily. And considering he has watched the type of news trends that receive coverage, his next comments are old news to many of us dissatisfied with how our communities are portrayed in the mainstream media, but hopefully illuminating to those in the industry:

In this role, he sees more of the world’s news coverage daily than practically anyone else on Earth. I asked him what he had learned about the news business.

He hesitated for a minute, as if wanting to be very careful about making a potentially offensive point. Then he said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world’s news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” He said this was not a purely theoretical question. “I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles.”

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the Stanley-Jones tragedy, and in light of South Philadelphia High School.

Bharat’s quote – “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.” – is highly important when we discuss the problems with discussing issues of grave importance. The reality of the current news model is that major stories are being neglected. When I ran a search for Aiyanna Stanely-Jones on the Washington Post website, a total of six articles were returned. Five were republished or summarized from the AP. One was a television column by Lisa de Moraes, on the influence of the television crew at the scene, and looking at the crime through a “what does this mean for reality tv?” perspective. Over at the New York Times, there was one reported piece focusing on the use of the flash grenade and the influence of cameras on police reaction, and an op-ed. Op-ed author Charles M. Blow sparked a conversation around the fall of Detroit, as a city. But it is only in alternate spaces where Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ death is put in the context of the larger picture.

The blog over at the Center for Investigative Reporting has a great piece up about the new reality of police raids:

A house raid by law enforcement in Michigan that led to the killing of a 7-year-old girl May 16 sheds new light on the question of whether police have become overly militarized in the post-Sept. 11 age of terrorism. The Detroit Police Department was executing a “no-knock” search warrant intending to nab an alleged murderer with the help of its SWAT team when authorities say Aiyana Jones was accidentally shot by one of the officers. [...]

The show’s website features images of Detroit’s special response team dressed in military-style apparel and carrying sub-machine guns capable of spraying 800 rounds per minute. One officer wields an intimidating, large-barreled “multi-launcher,” which fires tear-gas projectiles “to disorient potential threats” and “less-lethal rounds,” such as sand bags that are used for crowd-control situations.[...]

Police departments across the United States have used federal homeland security grants to equip these teams with armored vehicles, battering rams, modern devices for conducting surveillance, incident-command trucks resembling RVs on steroids and SWAT attire that seems to visually transform local police into the armed forces.

In one area of Hawaii, police use a 19,000-pound armored BearCat purchased with $240,000 in grants “mostly for executing high-risk search warrants,” according to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The vehicle has detectors on board for radiation and methane gas, and it’s followed on “missions” by a $330,000 mobile-command post.

New Hampshire spent $378,000 for two armored vehicles, and police in the town of Nashua there acquired a $250,000 mobile-command unit. Hidalgo County in southern Texas used federal cash set aside by lawmakers for border security to snap up a $346,000 “ballistic engineered armored response” vehicle, according to grant records Elevated Risk obtained this year.

Kimora Lee Simmons (yes, that Kimora Lee) took to the blog at Global Grind to air her frustration:

As the family has said, and I agree, the officer who shot Aiyana is not a “monster”. I do not believe that his actions were intentional, but the slapdash techniques with which these kinds of raids are executed concerns me.

We have militarized our police force, and in doing so, created a war between those who are suppose to protect AND serve our communities with the men, women and children that live in them! We break down doors in our own neighborhoods, the way we break down doors in Baghdad or Kabul. We treat our very own citizens as if they are on the other side. We have lost the connection we once had with our police force. We are afraid of them and they are afraid of us!

Adrienne Brown provides a guest post on the Global Grind, with similar sentiments:

why do the grieving faces of people on this street look so unsurprised?

and when 17-year-old Jerean Blake was killed Friday, wasn’t that equally devastating? did we do enough as a community at that moment?

do we know how to keep our children safe?

can we admit that we don’t know anything about how to be the kind of society where this could never happen?

to step back from the immediate events is to see what happens in communities who internalize the corporate military worldview that some people are expendable. the way we function as an economy that places profit first is that it’s normal for people in uniform to throw bombs into the home of civilians and shoot children.

an economy that valued people first could never justify those tactics.

i think of the children in my life – those blessed and loved and safe, and those who will never really be safe because of how the world sees them. the way aiyana died, the last minutes of her life – that is terrorism.

to know that that kind of terror and pain can happen to a child in this time – IS happening to children, funded by our tax dollars, right now, in iraq, afghanistan, palestine, arizona, and here in detroit – is to understand that as things stand, there is no justice.

Akiba Solomon, over at Colorlines, discusses the dual nature of the tragedy:

Cargill’s conflicted reaction is gut wrenching. “I’m sorry what happened to the 7-year-old child, you know my sympathy [goes] out for 7-year-old. But they knew the guy killed my son [Je'Rean Blake],” Cargill charges about the Jones family’s relationship with Owens. “Everything got started because that guy killed my son. That girl would have been living right now and my son would have been living too. … They don’t think about my son. They talk all about the 7-year-old girl. What about my son?”

This situation is too much, too sad, too unfair, too senseless to intellectualize about the moral equivalency this grieving mother is expressing. Too much, too sad, too unfair, too senseless to harp on how excessive police force—not her child’s murder by a civilian—led to the death of Aiyana. Who am I to question her anger at the lack of public focus on Je’Rean? After all, his killing should be just as aberrant as Aiyana’s—not just business as usual in the poor, Black neighborhood both children called home.

So here we all are, a week later. Facebook pages with thousands strong, hearts reaching out to families of two brown children who died at the hands of foolish predators, sloppy police work and reality-show preening. Aiyana’s in the ground, buried in a pink suit. Je’Rean laid to rest Monday.

Where are these perspectives in the mainstream media? The Stanley-Jones case, like South Philadelphia High last year, deserves better treatment. Both of these stories dealt with matters of national importance.

For Aiyana Stanley-Jones, her senseless death should have sparked a much better conversation than the rumination of reality television crews. While that area is ripe for exploration (and I would personally be interested to know if producers on cop reality shows use the same manipulative tactics as they do on regular competition shows), that should not be the only angle taken in the realm of the news. Look at the excerpts above. Police violence, state sanctioned violence, the militarization of police forces in the aftermath of 9/11, cycles of violence – there are many different angles to discuss with this story, but it appears that there is no interest in looking at those who are marked as “others.”

It was the same with South Philadelphia High School. Here was a golden opportunity to discuss some very complicated issues: the realities facing recent immigrants and children of immigrants in America, the declining state of South Philadelphia, class politics and how they create schools of last resort, the fact that many children cannot go to school in safety, the needs of overtaxed teachers for support, cycles of bullying, the declining infrastructure in urban cities — and yet, that chance was missed. A search on the New York Times website pulls up one story on South Philadelphia High, with the headline “Philadelphia: Racial Tensions at School.” The tragedy? This sole mention was a summary of an Associated Press article.

Google is doing their best to fix the news – but I am starting to wonder what parts of our current media model are worth salvaging.

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