A tale of two schools

How media coverage skewed perceptions of RB and Harper High School

Mike Gmitro, Staff Reporter

October 3, RB students came to school and noticed ABC 7 news cameras out front. That morning NBC 5 had run a news story. The Chicago Tribune wrote a story on RB that same day. This sudden splurge of media attention on RBHS was due to vandalism during a Homecoming prank at the school that cost $3,500 in damages. Because of the severity of the prank, RBHS considered cancelling the Homecoming dance that weekend.

A year previous to this, Harper High School on the South Side of Chicago in Englewood also considered cancelling their Homecoming dance because of numerous gun violence incidents. This received practically no media coverage. I saw the parallels between these two schools and began to question why there was such a difference in exposure between the two schools that are just a few miles away. I believe that there are two issues that arise in the discussion of this situation; race, and entertainment. Both are difficult and multi-faceted. But allow me for a minute to poke a stick at them and see if we can scratch the surface from a student perspective.

Harper High School is a public high school in Englewood of around 700 students. It is primarily an African American population. Riverside-Brookfield High School is a public high school in Riverside with around 1400 students. It is primarily a white population. So when the subject of why ones receives attention and the other does not arises, it is impossible to not view race as a factor.

What factors into the excitement of a media story? What makes it worth covering? Generally something out of the ordinary. In the case of RB, a large group of students from a generally affluent school committing vandalism is fairly notable. But isn’t the fact that students are being shot weekly and the constant threat of violence more disturbing? One would think that the Chicago community would be more up in arms over the loss of lives than the loss of dollars. When a bunch of white suburban kids cause serious trouble, people are shocked and surprised, but when black students shoot each other, they are not.

Some might say that it is just the cultural mindset that has caused this, that because of the situation where many black students grow up, violence from them is just natural. But what I take away from that is people saying that black students are inherently more of trouble makers than white students, and that is a disturbing and racist viewpoint. Yet I feel that it is the viewpoint the media is expressing. By covering a story on white pranksters, and not black gang bangers, the news agencies show what they believe to be the noteworthy story. They show what they think is shocking. Black students are no more violent than white students. They do not have a higher tendency towards irresponsible action. White kids growing up in a similarly difficult situation would act the same way, and at RB they showed that they are just as capable of making poor decisions. So for people to be taken aback by the events that unfolded at RB, but not bat an eye at the situation at Harper, shows how deep-seated the racist mindset of society has become.

Black students are no more violent than white students. They do not have a higher tendency towards irresponsible action. White kids growing up in a similarly difficult situation would act the same way, and at RB they showed that they are just as capable of making poor decisions.”

I believe a big reason society thinks this way is because of news media. The world of news reporting has turned more towards entertainment than reality. News stations want to be watched, so just like anything else, they try to maximize the excitement of their coverage. I believe this has led to some lapses in reporting. Stories are reported before the facts are all gathered, just so one agency can have the “exclusive” scoop. Football scores are displayed with equal importance to a murder. The news media presents what they believe the general population wants to see, but I’m afraid that what they think we want to see is a softer and dramatized view of the world.

Alex Kotlowitz, a writer on social issues and urban affairs for The Wall Street Journal, describes a great example of the discrepancies in news coverage in his book The Are No Children Here. Kotlowitz discusses a shooting incident in which a nine-year-old boy Alonzo Campbell was shot in the back of the head by a stray bullet near the Henry Horner Housing projects. This shooting received media coverage mainly due to another shooting two days earlier in Winnetka where Laurie Dann, an emotionally unstable woman, entered into an elementary school and shot six children, killing one. She then killed herself. Kotlowitz puts these two incidents into perspective this way:

“To many at Horner, the two shootings served to highlight everything they didn’t have. Alonzo’s shooting received extensive coverage in one of the local newspapers, but only because its aftermath so sharply contrasted with the response to the Winnetka shooting. No one counseled Alonzo, who survived, or his friends. (…) One neighborhood, rich in community and professional talent, mobilized to comfort its wounded; another neighborhood, poor in spirit and resources, did nothing. In Winnetka, the shooting was an aberration, in Horner, it was part of normal life.” (There Are No Children Here, 105).

While the incident at RB is nowhere near as severe or troubling, there are still similarities that can be drawn between the two stories. RB and Harper received very different levels of media coverage and outrage; Winnetka and Horner received very different levels of outrage, and in both cases one community was white and the other was black. In both cases the white community received the media coverage, while the black communities did not. Why this is so important is because with media coverage comes exposure. When the shooting in Winnetka happened there was more support for the victims and the affected stemming from the attention it got. This helps the community heal. With Horner there was no attention so not nearly the same wide ranged support entering the community.

In the case of RB and Harper, attention brings action. With the media attention RB received, they felt the pressure to act and deal with the guilty parties. There can be reform. With Harper there is not the same action to find the responsible parties. There can’t be any change. Perhaps this is where some of the inequalities in our schools come from.

Racism undoubtedly continues to exist, and the media’s biased stance will only perpetuate it. If education and children are our future, then until things change, racism is in our future. Racism can only end when people are presented equally.