Prom gone wrong (and how the press loved it)

Letters to the editor are always interesting – too often overlooked. Today, though, there is a most-interesting take in the letters to the editor of the Iowa City Press-Citizen which focuses on journalistic practice.

The letter comes from two City High School students who suggested that Press-Citizen reporters (here is the story) failed to meet journalistic standards in the coverage of a “brawl” during prom night. The students suggest that the reporters failed to verify information (a traditional journalistic value and practice) by not contacting school officials and students to understand what the incident really was.

Students wrote:

“The letter to the editor suggests that the “April 12 news report ‘Brawl at City High over prom date’” … “blew the incident out of proportion and caused undue torment and suffering for the parties involved.

“Although the fight was wrong in nature, it did not warrant the press coverage it received. If the Press-Citizen felt compelled to cover the issue, they should have covered it in a more professional manner by interviewing the administrators at City High to clarify what actually happened.

“As students of City High, we feel that the public should know the incident was nothing more than an average high school scuffle, involving only three students, and that the word brawl did not accurately describe the event that took place.”

But the media covered this issue the way they did for a reason.

The statement they were trying to make through its coverage was not so much about City High, the fight, or the specific individuals involved. Instead, the story of this “brawl” contributed to an ongoing racist discourse about the changing city.

Over the past several years, Iowa City has been challenged by (sometimes violent) cultural clashes in response to a movement of African Americans and Latinos to the area. (The city’s African American population, according to the U.S. Census, has increased some 70 percent over the past 10 years.) A good number of new Iowa Citians have moved here from Chicago – though not all have migrated from there, nor are all new Iowa Citians Black.

Yet, to understand these changes to the city (even though minorities only make up less than 10 percent of Iowa City), the community has turned to stereotyped stories, tropes and myths about Blacks (that they are poor, highly deviant, more likely to commit crime, and etc.).

Cultural stories and myth make social issues more easily understood by being placed in familiar context. We all “know” about the violence of inner cities and that “knowledge” help us connect stories from there (Chicago) to here (Iowa City).

News media in the Iowa City area – including press from Cedar Rapids and Des Moines – has focused on disorder and crime to also explain the cultural clashes, turning to stories of “riots” and “mobs” of violent minorities. Remember, crime news is sexy. But crime news also misses a lot of the nuances and deeper causes of social conditions.

Let’s be clear: The prom “brawl” may not overtly have racist tones, but my argument is that this type of coverage of an incident makes sense only when it is put into a larger context.

In this argument, then, a “brawl” at City High – a location that itself has been a scene of racial mixing and tensions – comes to represent the nature of how our community deals with perceived disorder and the larger social, cultural, and economic influences that’s happening in the community.

But why spend so much time talking about a letter to the editor?

Two things:

1) That two City High students availed themselves of the opportunity to act as media watchdogs provides insights into how people interpret media, that they interpret media, and that news carries with it more than just information, but multiple layers of meaning;

2) That news media turn to incidents of violence – however minimal – as snapshots of larger social disorder in a community, regardless of to what degree these instances are perceived as real signs of disorder.

So what do we do?

Two more things:

1) Question what you read and see. News is not a bad thing. But, news is a limited method by which one can understand society. And, news holds significant cultural, social, and economic power that shapes ideas, policy, and meanings.

1) Follow the lead of these students who wrote the letter to the editor. Ask the media why they cover what they do. Email reporters. Call editors. Talk about it. Media (as an action) is messy, and we need more critical eyes that look at the cultural impact of news by understanding what and how it “covers” everyday life.