One of the first books I read when I was getting to know Chicago was Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here,” a vivid portrayal of the desperate lives of children growing up amid the violence of the city’s West Side housingprojects. Indeed, the murder of children is all too common for us to report. Twenty-three children under the age of 10 were murdered in Chicago in 1997 as were 223 youngsters between the ages of 11 and 20—246 young victims out of a total of 759 murders in Chicago that year.
The most shocking of these crimes keep violence against children in the headlines. However, gang shootings are now so frequent that many are routinely played in news briefs. Far from demanding more thorough reporting of every such incident, readers tell us they feel surfeited with gory crime stories. Many say they prefer in-depth reporting about the root causes of crime to continuous police-blotter coverage.
We are also aware that many suburban readers regard crime as one of the inner city problems they are glad to have left behind. Yet it is in the suburbs also that we now find stories about children touched by violence, drugs and gangs. We’ve carried numerous reports of gang activity spreading to the suburbs. Violence and crime, in short, are everywhere.
When an Oregon schoolboy opened fire in his school cafeteria in May, news of it reached the Midwest about noon and was all over radio and television that night. The Oregon incident was the fifth in a nationwide sequence of schoolyard murders. I decided that The Sun-Times would carry the Oregon story fully the next morning but not on the front page as we had previous shootings. We put this story on pages two and three with a note to readers on page one. We explained that we did not want to risk copycat action by some troubled teenager or frighten younger children.
I went home worrying that readers would complain about not finding the story on the front page. Exactly the opposite happened. In weeks following that decision we received hundreds of approving phone calls and E-mails. These messages left me with no doubt that many parents and teachers believe—as I do—that children are influenced by what they read and see of violence in the news media. Repeatedly parents made clear that they often felt afraid to let their children see the newspaper or the television news. Many used the word “relief” to describe their reaction to how we treated the Oregon story. A librarian at Wellesley College commended our decision while describing her reaction to how her hometown paper handled the same story: “I read The Boston Globe and was so troubled by the photo of the bloody boy on the front page I threw the section in the trash before my two sons, aged nine and 11, could see it…[such photos] are not a necessary part of that coverage. I hope other newspapers…will reconsider the effect their presentation of the news has on their communities.”
In doing this The Sun-Times was neither “taking a stand,” nor telling others how to cover news, nor intent on becoming a “good news” newspaper. Had a similar incident happened near Chicago, we explained in the front-page note, we’d have felt compelled to give that story page one treatment. But I’d weigh carefully the possible impact on children before approving the headline and deciding whether we’d use photos on the front page.
Reader reaction to our decision in the Oregon case warrants reflection. If readers are telling us that they are sometimes afraid of the newspaper coming into their homes, what does that imply for our future sales? I believe we should be looking for ways to present the news in full while, through judicious placement and sensitive signposts, giving parents a chance to protect their children from such reports. Unless we can do this, parents may view newspapers as threatening their family values, and newspapers may have difficulty in retaining readers who don’t want their children exposed to our “news values.”
This will call for judgment and innovation, a keen sense of proportion and a readiness to recognize that acceptability in the home can be as much a spur to future sales as today’s dramatic headlines on page one. If this means playing certain stories where children are less likely to see them, we may be surprised by how positively readers respond. The editorial judgment this will require shouldn’t be confused with outright censorship.
In these times, when the boundaries of what is deemed “fit to print” are being pushed to new limits, editors must apply their judgment more carefully and explore new ways of reporting the details of modern events in full, while keeping the newspaper family-friendly.
Nigel Wade is Editor in Chief of The Chicago Sun Times and is a 1983 Nieman Fellow.