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Throwing Rocks at Reporters: More On this Week’s Cover Story

I’ve been pleased to see the fair amount of chatter that my “News at What Cost?” story has triggered. In the Twittersphere, one local reporter -- Providence-based Associated Press correspondent Michelle Smith -- had the following response:

As I tweeted-replied to Michelle, I agree; the only reporters quoted in the story are men and most of the other community members were men, too. More female voices would have made this a stronger story, not just because diversity is always a goal for this kind of “roundtable” article, but because a female reporter (particularly a female TV news reporter) might have been able to speak more specifically to, as Michelle tweeted, “what it's like knocking on strangers' doors, and decisions made in the field.”

I did speak with two women during my reporting process. One of them was my friend Maria Clark -- currently a reporter for New Orleans CityBusiness and former police reporter for the Riverdale [NY] Press and freelancer for the New York Daily News -- who posted the woman-attacks-reporter story on my Facebook wall on June 6, after seeing it on dlisted.com.

Our email Q & A is excerpted below:

I laughed a lot [at the video] and thought how I would have avoided this situation entirely in my days as an intern for the NY Daily News, by sitting in my car, calling the desk and telling them no one was home.

It would have worked if the woman had responded to the question about how her daughter was doing. In that case it would have worked as a small small update. This was just embarrassing for the reporter, the network, and made a woman who obviously was still very upset about her daughter, react in a way she might not have in any other circumstance. It was unfair, and not a story.

As a print reporter, we fortunately are able to use the phones to call people and ask difficult questions on deadline. For broadcast reporters its different. They are more upfront, with their cameras and recorders and it can come off as even more intrusive. I think this video should have been edited down to show that the woman did not want to comment. That's it. Seeing a reporter being attacked by dogs was unnecessary and embarrassing.

Covering crime is really really tough. You are intruding on people's lives at the worst possible moment they will likely ever go through. And for what? A quote? A one minute segment that will disappear from the minds of viewers and readers the next day? I think reporters, regardless of the medium, have to acknowledge this and approach victims with humility. Talk to them acknowledging their grief and that what you (the reporter) is doing is an intrusion, but one that could inevitably highlight a crime issue that is affecting a neighborhood and the response of the police etc. Even isolated incidents, where someone goes nuts and murders for no seeming reason, can be used to highlight mental health issues. Ultimately their is a purpose to covering crime, but it does need to be done with sensitivity, humility and awareness.

While reporting, I also spoke to Brown University student, Saudi Garcia, whom I mentioned in the article’s introduction. While I only briefly quoted Saudi’s policymic.com article in my piece, we also had a lengthy email Q & A conversation. Below are some excerpts.

I was online one afternoon when I noticed a post a lot of my friends were commenting on. It was the video that made the news. A lot of my friends on facebook were like, "Oh, wow. Tsk, tsk. Providence is crazy," and I began to read and learn more about what happened.

I initially thought that the event had taken place in the East Side because I saw the Trolley when the video first opened up. I realize now that the Trolley must have been the number 6 bus that travels through the south side. Either way, I felt like this family was part of our community and deserved respect and privacy just like any other. I've done community and research work with members of this community and volunteered at a public school. I've protested and worked among the homeless community in the area and understand some (but not all) of the issues that families face in Providence. I feel that though I live in another area of the city, this woman and her family are still part of the larger "community" that I inhabit. When I go to the South Side to conduct an interview for research, to have a meal or buy groceries, I could very well be passing by her house or be sitting next to her or her family members on the bus. Having a sense of neighborliness, especially in a city as small as Providence, means thinking of the many people around you, not just in your immediate vicinity, as part of your community.

[There is] the tendency to portray poor African Americans (obviously not in all cases) as socially isolated creatures who are reacting bewilderingly to an issue in their community. I think the news crew expected some sort of performance that would corroborate their stereotypes about families in the South Side, and perhaps about poor Black people in general.

When situations like this occur, people are left stunned wondering what has caused this to happen, but there are plenty of folks doing amazing work that contend with the problems that the reporter in this story was just barely touching upon, and [approaching] from the wrong perspective. I think the media has a responsibility to produce work that is interesting not only for its melodramatic aspects (I mean, what kind of reaction was the reporter expecting in this case? A sobbing parent? Crying siblings? It's all very suspect), but also for its value as socially responsible work.

I hope to follow up with more bloggery on this story, but I’m still getting used to this "Not For Nothing" interface (and the time it takes to blog in the first place; how do you do it, Ted Nesi?) Fingers crossed that this post winds up looking the way I envision it.

As always, I welcome your responses. And my invitation remains open to Abbey Niezgoda and Robert Rockstroh -- news reporter and news director at ABC 6, respectively -- to enter the conversation.

UPDATE: As usual, the crew over at ”Beat the Press” had a great take on the original ABC 6 story, as well:

UPDATE:

Ah, the internet.

It appears that our friend RAMZPAUL -- the one whom I mention and quote in the intro to “News At What Cost?” -- was inspired to record a new video blog addressed directly to me. (For future reference, RAMZPAUL, former Phoenix editor Ian Donnis offers a handy pronunciation guide for my last name in his ”TGIF: 11 Things to Know About Rhode Island Politics + Media” column this week.)

In his blog post, RAMZPAUL writes:

What can I say? RAMZPAUL is more interesting that the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For the past 40 years the mainstream media has been trying to censor the behavior of "youths". This is why when you see a commercial for burglar alarm system you always see the criminals portrayed as White men.

The fact that uncensored video of ghetto behavior is getting loose, worries people like Philip Eil. They are losing control of the narrative.

I saw RAMZPAUL’s video just as I was digging in for a day’s work on articles for this upcoming week’s Phoenix. This doesn’t mean that I won’t respond to him; I will, and I look forward to doing so. I’ve just got to work for a few hours on other things before I do. As always, if anyone -- especially ABC6 reporter Abby Niezgoda and ABC6 news diretor Robert Rockstroh -- wants to join the conversation, there’s never been a better time. You can do so by jumping into the comments section of the article, which is getting livelier by the minute. You can tweet to @phileil or @provphoenix. Or you can email me at peil@phx.com.

Check out RAMZPAUL’s video response to “News at What Cost?” below:

UPDATE: Feedback is still rolling in a week after ”News at What Cost?” first went online. “Feedback,” though, is perhaps too soft a word for this story, which continues to elicit raw phone calls, emails, and messages on Facebook and Twitter. Below are some excerpts of notes I’ve received.

Angelo Isom writes:

I’m from the community where this happened and frankly, I think Tim WHITE should keep his mouth shut because the only person's safety he's even remotely concerned about is that stupid ass reporter...Let's keep in mind that this is supposed to be about concern for a young girl who was SHOT. So once again, you white people manage to flip a story's focus onto the person who is actually the safest of the bunch and has the most beneficial life to live out of all who appeared on camera that day: a WHITE WOMAN. She only got nipped by a dog not shot like the BLACK girl they were pretending to show concern for so talk about that.

Marco McWilliams, Deputy Director of the Providence Africana Reading Collective, writes:

In America larger issues are always involved. What are they? In part they are the racialization of urban violence, the silencing of social violence (for example, poverty) and the age old stereotypical tropes of People of Color in the media.

By the racialization of urban violence I mean two things:

(1) Certain forms of violence are essentialized and mapped onto the bodies of black people. They become a pathology in the minds of the dominant class. Dominant white culture imagines the life (and lifestyle) of Black Americans to exist within a particular mode. And that modality is never complex or dynamic; it is always simplistic and fixed. Therefore, when we think about Lawrence's actions we imagine someone barbaric and uncivilized; thus, confirming long-held stereotypes held by dominant white culture about black people.

So, in the minds of those informed by this kind of ideology Lawrence's comportment require no critical thought or social analysis of any kind. She becomes simply one who is animating the very behaviors which they have already convinced themselves of as being necessary to her functioning as a black, urban (i.e., "ghetto" or "hood"), woman. This is the essentialism.

These kind of characterizations are, of course, not exclusive to Lawrence. Rather, black women in general are thought of as being this way.

A stereotype in this sense is merely the mapping of these pejorative ideas about black people on to their bodies. Therefore, to see a black woman is synonymous to thinking about her in a particular way as a human. Not even a shift in her class status can alter this. Recall the ways in which Michelle Obama, a Harvard educated attorney, has been portrayed (or imagined) in the media.

[The] use of terms like "animals" and pronouns like "them" and "they" [in the comments section of the article] are classic examples of racist essentialism and mapping.

(2) We tend to focus on one form of violence: person-to-person physical violence. This means that critiques of social violence (systemic poverty, un/under employment, police targeting of economically exploited black communities, the targeting of Black and Latino youth for school suspensions*, etc.) by a State apparatus are either obscured or altogether silenced.

Lawrence is ONLY recognized when she does something that sensationally confirms her status as an “Other,” i.e., throwing a rock at camera man and chasing a white, blond news woman down the street with her two pit bulls.

*See recent ACLU report.

Steven Sylvia, from Providence, writes:

I think it is absurd to put any blame at all on the reporter. She was on the street. She was just asking questions. But the worst part about the people in your article is that they did not once mention the woman`s reaction. As if...throwing rocks, waving a bat, and setting pitbulls on someone is a reasonable response to being annoyed at someone asking you questions. Which brings me to my main point. This woman and her reaction IS normal in these kinds of neighborhoods. I have lived on Douglas Ave. in Providence for 20 years. A baseball bat, rocks, fists, pit bulls, guns, and knives are all reasonable responses to people who you feel are annoying you or disrespecting you. In neighborhoods like mine and like the one this lady comes from, violence is how they deal with everything. There is no logic. There is no reasoned debate. The stronger and more violent person is always right.

The vast majority of people watching that video are shocked in one way or the other. Either they are shocked at how pushy the reporter is or they are shocked by the violence unleashed by the woman. But the interview with the woman shows how screwy her culture is. Her friends are telling her she “is a star.” The woman does not seem to understand how ludicrous this is. All she says is that she doesn’t want to be a star and that this video is ruining her life. As if her life wasn’t already a freaking mess...no utilities, no money coming in, a daughter who has been shot, DCYF not allowing her to see her kids.

One other thing. Why didn’t anyone mention what the woman said to the reporter, “You white bitch.” Imagine of the races had been flipped, a white person setting upon a black reporter so violently while saying “You black bitch.” I have to assume it would be a hate crime.

Finally, only one person (Jim Taricani) bothers to mention that the woman has been charged with three felony assaults. I assume one for the rock and one for each dog . The rest of your idiot panel just blamed society, the media, and subconscious racism. The whole read was beyond idiotic.

Steven McCloy offers another perspective from Providence:

I am not a journalist. I am not a "video-journalist." Simple citizen, living in the North End of Providence.

A number of years ago, my wife accidentally discovered the bodies of the Brindell family in Barrington. The finding of the bodies was the news. The finder was not the news. That did not stop the TV trucks from parking in front of our house, coming onto our property, knocking on the door (with camera running) and THEN asking permission to talk with us. Denied. They came to our door when we were not at home. They video'd our dogs barking at them from the windows. Now, the dogs had been the actual discoverers of the odors from the decaying bodies. While they might be considered part of the news, that did not give the cameraman the right to penetrate the walls/windows of our house with their invasive equipment or the station the right to display the inside of our house on television that night.

We felt ourselves to be under siege. I understand some (small) part of what Lawrence felt. I understand the impulse to pick up a stone and throw it. I threw at the reporters instead barbed words. I understand releasing the hounds. I have nothing but disdain for the cheap product that passes for television reporting or (gag) video-journalism.

I am sad that the Providence Journal no longer goes in for journalism. I am sad that television news provides only shallow pandering to our baser needs to be "entertained" and enticement to buy (stuff) that we do not need but are taught to want.

The contribution of Mr Watson was right on target. The local (and national) TV stations do not have the integrity to report a weighed and balanced, informative glimpse of the tragedy of Ms. Lawrence and her family. They give a sound and picture bite and then will move on to the next titillation.

Where was the analysis of why it is not even NEWS that there was a killing in the Black underclass? [EDITORS NOTE: Melisa Lawrence’s daughter was not killed in the incident that preceded the ABC6 story.] Did any of these so-called journalists learn whether or not there were any friends or neighbors who rallied to support this family? Did the Phoenix?

I do not watch television news except for Daily Show and Colbert Report. This is one of the reasons.

Shame of the reporter. Shame on the new manager who sent her out, not to report but to fill time.

The shame is: no one feels shame anymore.

Feel free to continue to send your thoughts about the article (or the discussion it has triggered) to me at peil@phx.com. I will keep updating this page as long as there emails and other updates to post. I’ll also soon be posting a few thoughts of my own explaining why -- as many in the comments section have asked -- I published the article in the first place.

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