I’m from “here”: What do geographic identifiers mean?

Has geographic location become the new racial identifier? Take a look at this story.

Headline: Chicago Man Accused of Coralville Robbery Now Behind Bars

Lede: Johnson County Sheriff’s Office reports indicate that a 21-year-old Chicago man accused of participating in an armed robbery at 708 18th Avenue, Coralville in 2009 is now behind bars at the Johnson County Jail.

Journalists are often taught to not identify an individual’s race in a news story unless race is crucial to the story. (Was this a hate crime based upon race? Will mentioning race matter?)

But what about location? Because, what if that location holds meaning, and what if that meaning, itself, is racialized?

First, a quick reminder about news coverage and race: Generally, journalists are encouraged by their organizations and journalistic standards to avoid writing stories that highlight race for no reason.

Take this fake example: “Police say a black man broke into the bank at 12:30 a.m. and took $50,000.”

Yeah, that would be bad.

The argument goes that newsworkers (most of whom are white) would likely not say “a white man broke into the bank.” So why say black?

Stories that identify only racial minorities as alleged, perceived, or “real” criminals further polarizes society.

(What’s most interesting is when you hear stories that alleged perpetrators of crimes that occur at night “appear to have dark skin.” Well, geesh, almost anyone in the dark of night has darker skin tones than when it’s nice and sunny out.)

In our fake bank robbery story here, for instance, mentioning race would be an accepted journalistic practice only if it was among the robber’s multiple other identifiers.

Try: “Police say the man appeared to be black, 5′, 11”, wearing a red shirt and a black baseball cap. He had a scar on his right cheek.”

Or something like that.

But are perceptions of where people are from the same as what we think about when we think about their skin color?

Just as black skin tone may signify deviant and criminal in our culture, we know that terms such as “urban,” “ghetto,” and “inner-city,” can also mean “dangerous” and “vile.”

Now, what if those urban ideas were given a proper name.

Like, Chicago.

A migration of African Americans “from elsewhere” — including Chicago — to Iowa City and its surrounding areas over the past 30 years has come to make some issues such as affordable housing, crime (and perceived crime), and racially and economically integrated schools just as much about where “poor blacks” are coming from than their skin color.

News articles about affordable housing, city council candidates, any type of crime south of Iowa City’s Highway 6 — the city’s “Southeast Side” — are full of reader comments about people’s perceptions that affordable housing options have attracted droves of poor blacks from Chicago, transplanting the “ghetto” from there (Chicago) to here (Iowa City).

A story about a reported shooting on the city’s “Southeast Side” in May reveals the connection people are making between violence and Chicago.

As one reader comment on the story said to another user:

Honestly Jeff, you have to admit there’s increasing crime in the cr/ic corridor and it just soo happens many of the criminals are black and formally or currently from Chicago. I wish it wasn’t so but its true. Find statistics that state otherwise and I will shut up.

And another:

Jeff, people bellyache about “Chicago” as a code for “black.” And, living in Iowa City/Coralville, you can’t throw dirty dishwater out a window and not hit a FIB (nice translation: “Foolish Illinois Buffoon”) who’s attending Iowa on Mommy and Daddy’s dime.

No one gripes about white Chicago-land suburbanites…

So if we go back to our original story from The Gazette

Headline: Chicago Man Accused of Coralville Robbery Now Behind Bars

Lede: Johnson County Sheriff’s Office reports indicate that a 21-year-old Chicago man accused of participating in an armed robbery at 708 18th Avenue, Coralville in 2009 is now behind bars at the Johnson County Jail.

Does the word Chicago have a different meaning than just a “geographic location?”

Richard Pratt, a content editor at theGazette.com, said printing geographic locations in Website headlines is more about “identifying location from a factual,” not “cultural” position.

“We’re not attempting to characterize newsmakers from being from urban area or bringing any specific problems to the community,” he said. Rather, the Website is “more likely to score more highly if people are looking for news” based on location and keywords. That’s why location matters.

Any interpretation of what location may mean (such as the notion of “Chicago” as “black, “the inner city,” the spot of crime) is made by the reader — not the journalists, Pratt said.

So is the reader responsible for her interpretation of space even if seemingly most references to Chicago in local news here is related in some way to crime? Over a long period of time? In multiple press outlets?

Now, I’m not saying we remove all identifiable information about alleged criminals locations, where they did their thing, and where they were caught, but I do think we need to evaluate the cultural meanings within words — especially about place and space — and what those words may say about where we live and those we live with.

2 thoughts on “I’m from “here”: What do geographic identifiers mean?

  1. Jim Malewitz

    Ted, I certainly agree that many people here in Eastern Iowa problematically and bigotedly use Chicago as a code as a code word for black (often expressing that opinion in story comments – some pretty venomous ones ), but I can’t see how you can possibly extend that problem onto the KCRG story you used (and it’s not just because I’ll still be working for the TV station for a couple more weeks).

    As Richard said, headlines need to be specific to be effective, and furthermore, hometowns are identified in all news stories – not just those about crime – to tell people who they’re reading about. If the man in the story, Jimmy Powell Jr., weren’t identified as from Chicago, readers could think that it was a Jimmy Powell Jr. Maybe from Cedar Rapids (though I’m not sure if there is one).

    That’s why I wrote this headline:

    Chicago man’s sentences vacated in Cedar Rapids check fraud, Chicago murder
    Did I assume the guy is black? No – I just wanted to let people know that the dude was from somewhere other than Iowa, and to explain why the guy also had committed a crime elsewhere.

    Or just look at these other headlines I’ve written , which have nothing to do with crime, blacks, or Chicago. Location prominently factors in many of them. Like “North Libery man indicted on child pornography counts” – it’s not a commentary on the town of North Liberty.

    And without a mugshot in a crime story, how would the reporter even know the man was black? How do we know now if Powell was black? Since that story has no comments on the KCRG website, it seems like you’re the only one jumping to that conclusion.

    It sucks when readers make their own assumptions about stories, but I don’t think that editors should give the public less information just to prevent that possibility.

  2. Jim Malewitz

    I guess what I’m getting at is: I don’t think that journalists here, at least in the examples we’ve talked about, are treating Chicago any different than any other place. Yes, it’s in headlines, but so is Walford, North Liberty, Cedar Rapids and Oxford. Are you saying that we should treat stories out of Chicago differently, or should we just never identify place in headlines?

    It would be a problem if journalists were identifying people who live here as “from Chicago,” but that’s not what we’re talking about. Here, it’s used as a descriptor.

    Also, using place in a headline can also help other news organization pick up on a story happening elsewhere that might be relevant to it.

    Like yesterday the Quad City Times posted a story about a teen (a white teen) charged with vehicular manslaughter after allegedly driving while intoxicated. We hadn’t reported on the new development (we had reported on the fatal crash), and because of that, we saw we needed to report on it.

    It was the same case when we saw in a Jackson Hole paper that a Cedar Rapidian died while rafting in the snake river. The deadline helped us see that story.

    Even if helping other newspapers isn’t the goal of newspapers, those headlines do. And, yes, they increase page views, which I don’t think is a bad thing if done ethically (because yes, journalists do need food and shelter). Also, it gets the information to more readers, and isn’t that the point of journalism?

    But I will say that I don’t think everyday crime stories are all that important, unless they have to do with an immediate danger the public faces, i.e. a serial killer still on the loose.

    I wouldn’t read many of those stories if I didn’t have to write them. But that’s a whole different conversation.

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