Mireya Villarreal, an ABC national news correspondent, told the group of journalists and other media professionals that following the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed two teachers and 19 students, her mom gave her this advice: You need to get the names of the victims not only right, but “perfect.” Villarreal said she was grateful to ABC News in that regard because the news company started sending emails with phonetic pronunciations of names.
It seems like such a small aspect of reporting the news fairly and accurately. But Jeff Pegues, the chief national affairs and justice correspondent for CBS News and a moderator of the panel, reminded the audience there’s nothing more important than getting the name right because it speaks to your credibility as a journalist.
There is no getting around the people of the communities journalists cover. Christina Carrega, a reporter for CNN, said you have to ask the people of the community how they describe their community, what they call it. Their answers may differ, but they are important. Carrega said even Google Maps has referred to an area differently than the residents of that community.
As an attendee of the conference pointed out, media portrayals in Chicago have led to the depiction of the city as a hub of crime, particularly Black on Black crime. But that’s certainly not how Chicagoans view the city. Eric Deggans, author and NPR TV critic, explained that’s because Chicago, which historically has had Democratic mayors, has been used in political discussions by conservatives as an example of failed liberal leadership.
Deggans said he likes to remind people that it’s not Black on Black crime. It’s crime. People tend to kill in the communities they live in, Deggans said. The idea of Black on Black crime is a distraction, ill-informed and perpetuated by conservatives like those on Fox News and Breitbart News, Deggans said.
He explained a concept known as the myth of life, which maintains that there’s a certain way communities are supposed to experience life. Journalists feed into that with how they cover specific communities. “I think we should ban [usage of the phrase] ’It doesn’t happen here,’” Deggans said. “It’s happening everywhere.”
And the effects of gun violence are devastating everywhere.
Lester Holt, anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, said when the safety and security of our communities has been shattered in such a violent way, it’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pegues talked about the severe anxiety he developed covering violence. “You think you get used to it, but you don’t,” he said.
Journalist Erica Simon said the Uvalde shooting was particularly triggering for her as a mother. She said she would cry, wipe her face, and go on air. “It’s draining,” Simon said. Her solution was to bring that to her reporting and try to include compassion in her work, “because it’s real life,” she said.
Deggans also said the Uvalde shooting was unique, but for different reasons. We’ve had mass shootings before and we understand the picture of what happened may change, Deggans said. This felt like the first time during a mass shooting when the information was wrong because public officials were trying to make themselves look good, Deggans said.
“I’ve always said we trust law enforcement too much,” he added. That trust feels like an extension of listing those accused of crimes in local media, which in essence criminalizes the accused before they are convicted. Deggans said he hopes Uvalde has taught us not to assume law enforcement is right or innocently wrong. It may be intentional, he said.
Villarreal said the shooter may not have had a racial motive, but racists played a huge part in how a community is responded to. ”This is a poor brown community, and they were treated like poor brown people,” she said.