Ebony’s Kathy Chaney on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Kathy Chaney.

Let’s talk about the Laquan McDonald case. First the Chicago government released the tape of him being shot, and then at the beginning of June, it released more than a hundred other videos showing use of force by the police. Did it feel like a breakthrough when all that material came out?
It seemed like a breakthrough, but it also left you thinking, ‘Okay, what’s going to be released tomorrow? And whose name is going to become the new hashtag?’ It’s a breakthrough, but it’s also mentally draining — for the community, for reporters. We’re talking about things over, what, the last five years? Let’s go back even farther than that. What’s on video that you don’t know about? Could those things be released? … I think there’s still more investigation that needs to be done.

Were you surprised when all of that material came out? Or did you feel like you’d always known and just didn’t have access to the proof?
Covering the cops, I’d say I had known. There was just no proof. It’s easier to get now, and the dump of stuff that has come out now came from the pressure of the movement. They’re not letting the discussion die down. They forced their hand. I’m not surprised. I’m surprised that it took so long, but grateful that this time has come. And I’m here to help chronicle it. That’s a wonderful thing for me.

After all that time reporting in the city, especially in the black press, it must have been validating.
Absolutely. People ask me all the time, ‘What’s been your favorite story? Or most memorable story?’ And going back over 20 years, I would have to say right now. Covering the Black Lives Matter movement for the last two years has been my most memorable. I grew up in a family of social justice and social service, so it was something that was already in me. But I chose a different route: I chose to be the soldier without a sword and chronicle stuff. I wasn’t alive during the Civil Rights era, but I’m alive now. I have two teenaged daughters, and they’re witnessing this, so it’s important for me to help document this, help chronicle it, in video, in audio, and in print. It’s history going down.

In general, what do you think the black press has brought to the city’s coverage? How has it differed from what papers like the Tribune report?
There are times when the black press is more receptive and more respected in these situations. I’ve heard that plenty of times when I’ve been out in the field: If I’m there with a few of my colleagues, some people in the black community will come up to me first, even though we’re all asking for the same thing. They feel more open and comfortable talking to me, because they know that while I must be objective and can’t be biased, they know that I would understand what they were going through and what was happening — just because I’m a member of the community. And then there are ways I can make them feel more comfortable and more open. They can sense when a reporter’s there because they genuinely want to be there and get the story out, versus a reporter who was just assigned to go.

With the recent Black Lives Matter cases, or any other time when the national press swoops in and takes a big interest in something happening in Chicago, how does it look from your perspective? Do they oversimplify? Do they misunderstand the city?
Yes! You hear the regular ‘Englewood is the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago!’ ‘Englewood is the most hellified and dangerous neighborhood in Chicago!’ It’s not true, but our colleagues have put it out there, and people believe it. I was born and raised in Chicago on the south side; I’ve covered cops for about four years, so I’ve been steeped in all of these communities, all of these police districts, so I see where stuff is going on. I hear all the time about certain neighborhoods where it’s supposedly so safe, and there’s no crime. But I’m at the police station every week, doing the blotter, and I see all the violent crime that happens. It never makes the headlines; it’s never in the A or B block on the newscast. So we, the media, help shape how they want the city to be known. That’s when the national media come in and say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s like this.’

I’m like, ‘First of all, spend some time. You’re coming in on the weekends, going to a few places that a few people have told you to go to to get your story.’ Spend a week or two. Do your homework. Become embedded in these communities and then try to write a story. Did you come to just report on the shootings and the murders? Did you think about coming to report about all the great stuff that we have going on?

So-called black on black-on-black crime — there’s no such thing. And you hear all the ‘Where was Black Lives Matter when a little boy was shot? Y’all don’t protest this.’ Those protests go on all the time. We just had one last night in Englewood, where a 6-year-old girl was shot. She should be leaving the hospital soon. We have those rallies and marches in neighborhoods all the time when people are killed. But it’s not covered like it should be — leading people to say, ‘Y’all don’t lead marches for your own, but you march when the police kill someone.’ Do your homework and find out. It just bothers the hell out of me, I’m sorry.

How do you explain to white people that there’s no such thing as black-on-black crime?
There’s white-on-white crime; there’s Hispanic-on-Hispanic crime. What’s the difference? There are people killing each other each day. We’re all killing each other. So every time someone brings up Black Lives Matter, the safe response is always, ‘But what about black-on-black crime?’ What about it? It’s a cop-out phrase.

How is the state of diversity in broadcast journalism now versus print?
In Chicago, we’re doing okay. Our journalists on TV are more and more looking like us. There are more of us. CBS Chicago has done an outstanding job over the past year. On the print side — eh. There are very few at each mainstream outlet now, because of the layoffs and the buyouts. And in radio, we’re slim too.

How have you made the case to your bosses about why diversity matters?
I said, ‘Some people have a problem with the coverage because it doesn’t apply to them. It’s not for them. If you look at your demographics, and you keep touting, ‘This is our core listener, we want to strengthen our base,’ instead of increasing your listenership — to increase your listenership you have to provide coverage that’s for everyone.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know