Heads Will Roll: The Media and Gangs
September 10, 2010
They're cutting off people's heads in Mexico. California's Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown reminded reporters of that grisly fact this week when he announced a crackdown on Nuestra Familia, one of the state's prison gangs. Never mind that the link between California's gangs and the murderous Mexican cartels is indirect. Brown and the press corps were probably unaware of it, but they were following an old tradition by drawing a connection between local street crime and sinister foreign threats.
As far back as the late 18th century, the British government told its citizens that by sending pickpockets and highwaymen to a penal colony in Australia it was ridding the country of the same rabble that fomented the French Revolution. (There are those rolling heads again.) The media makes things worse when it parrots these fantastical links and imbues street gangs with more power and organization than they actually have, said Brian Contreras, the executive director of 2nd Chance Youth Program, a non-profit in Salinas, Calif. aimed at helping youth reject gang culture.
As an example of the harm media can do when it accepts at face value the claims of law enforcement and self-described gang gurus, Contreras points to a murder that happened in Salinas 20 years ago. After a middle-aged immigrant was robbed and killed on his way home from an English class, a gang expert produced a map of the town purporting to show the boundary lines of Salinas' gangs. The problem was two-fold, said Contreras. First, the map was a figment of the expert's imagination. Second, once the media reproduced it, the turf lines started to become real. 'Individuals who weren't involved in gangs actually became gang members because they were from a certain neighborhood,' said Contreras. '(The media) exacerbated a problem that was minor at the time.'
So how can reporters provide balanced journalism when law enforcement announces another gang summit, or neighborhood sweep? Contreras said that reporters should start asking why decades of summits and crackdowns have failed to yield results. 'Who's missing at the table,' asked Contreras. Why aren't the people who live in neighborhoods with gang problems at these summits? Where are the kids themselves - the ones in gangs, and the ones in serious danger of joining a gang? Asking these questions is an antidote to journalism that overstates and glamorizes gangs, and ultimately serves as a gang's best advertisement, said Contreras.
As the gang guru with the bogus map demonstrated, reporters should also be careful about who they talk to, said Al Hernandez-Santana, Executive Director of the Latino Coaltion for a Healthy California. Hernandez-Santana said that journalists in the United States spend too much time talking to gang researchers north of the border, and miss out on the wealth of studies about Latino gangs that have been done in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mexico. The conclusions are often different and more illuminating than those reached by criminologists in the United States, said Santana-Hernandez. For example, although Brown and others portray gang crime as on off-shoot of Mexican narco-violence, gangs are one of the U.S.'s most destructive imports to Latin America.
To be sure, youth gangs are scourges in the communities where they exist. The media has an obligation to report on them. But by regurgitating phony links to trans-national cartels and relying on the same cadre of experts for analysis, the media becomes part of the problem.
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4499 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, CA 94611
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