STAFF EDITORIAL: News Coverage of Adam Toledo Police Killing Shows Importance of Local Journalism

Zack Miller | The PhoenixA memorial consisting largely of candles, balloons and flowers along with a sign reading "Justice for Adam" sits at the end of the alleyway where 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

Amid another year marred by senseless police killings of people of color, Chicago lost one of its own — 13-year-old Adam Toledo — when a white police officer fatally shot him March 29 in the Little Village neighborhood. Adam put his hands up, which appeared to be empty, before being shot and killed.

Just over two weeks later, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released footage of the killing — which seemingly contradicted previous claims Adam was armed at the time of his death. The video prompted thousands of Chicagoans to take to the streets of Logan Square near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home, honoring the lives of Adam and others slain by law enforcement and calling for police reform and abolition.

Like many in our university community, members of the Phoenix Editorial Board have observed and reflected on this tragedy over the past few weeks as our city mourns Toledo’s death. As reporters and editors, many of us have also taken in the swirl of ethical questions and conversations the incident has renewed within the journalism industry locally and beyond.

The past year’s racial reckoning has sparked important discussions about journalistic norms as many industry professionals have been called to think deeper about how we report stories and why we report them. While different outlets, reporters and editors might give you different answers, one thing to come out of coverage of Adam’s murder is clear: local journalism matters.

When tragedy strikes, national outlets and reporters flood into the city and into our coverage areas when local stories become “high-profile” enough, sometimes neglecting the patterns of gun violence and tragedy Chicago deals with on a weekly — even daily — basis and the systemic issues that fuel these patterns. Don’t get us wrong, it’s great to see national outlets give voice to local stories, but media consumers should turn their eye toward also reading and supporting local media and reporters on the ground.

One Washington Post op-ed discussed how some outlets chose not to show the haunting video of Adam’s death, noting most of these outlets were local organizations. WBEZ, the Chicago arm of NPR, chose not to publish the video. Block Club Chicago published two versions of its story — one with and one without. In The Phoenix’s coverage of the video’s release, our staff chose to not embed or link the video, either.

It should come as no surprise that largely local outlets re-thought the way they wanted to present Adam’s last moments, as coverage of the widely shared footage of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald still looms over our corner of the industry. For some national outlets, Adam’s story represents one of the latest tragic police killings in our nation. While this is true, local reporters likely know this is representative of so much more.

Local reporters have the benefit of getting to know the place they cover — its people, communities and culture, beyond just one story. In doing so, they can become more empathetic reporters — telling stories in ways that reflect and serve their readers. 

Local outlet Block Club Chicago is one example of this model as it’s able to tell the city’s stories through a hyperlocal lens, with reporters scattered across the city’s many neighborhoods. Block Club reporter Mauricio Peña, who covers Little Village, shared a thread of stories on Twitter that showed just this — it featured pieces telling stories about the community’s activism, creativity and community beyond what happened the night of March 29.

As Peña put it in his April 16 thread: “There is so much hurt in Little Village right now. I just wanted to share the work that neighbors have been doing day in, day out to build community in this special place.”

In understanding tragic events against the greater context of our city, local journalists can report more nuanced and complete stories. The same goes for sourcing. CNN got rightfully criticized by some for featuring the president of the Chicago Police Union on “Cuomo Prime Time” who labeled the shooting “100% justified” and “heroic.”

As the journalism field continues to grow and change, investing in local journalism is an easy solution to many of the challenges our industry currently faces. The situation for local outlets, however, continues to become more urgent.

A 2019 report published by The Brookings Institution shows how local journalism is in decline, the implications of this decrease and some ways it could be improved. As the journalism industry changes, local newsrooms shrink, American’s political engagement plummets and important local stories go untold. In the report, author Clara Hendrickson poses ways policymakers can aid this crisis: allocate public funding for local journalism and reckon with how online platforms such as Facebook and Google impact its business model.

Next time a national tragedy or high-profile incident captivates the nation’s attention, in addition to clicking on the highly-promoted link from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, consider also seeking the stories of local papers in the city where it happened.

Take the extra few minutes to hear about the story from the boots on the ground — it’ll be worth it. 

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