It was billed as a town hall meeting on youth violence. But more than that, it was a transformative moment for two of Baltimore’s leading media organizations.
Like the eclectic group of people — victims, parents, educators, community activists, cops and politicians — who were invited as panelists and audience members, The Baltimore Banner and WJZ-TV were drawn to the University of Baltimore’s mid-Belvedere campus by these chilling statistics:
Seventy-three people 19 years old or younger had been shot in Baltimore by the first week of May — 19 of them fatally.
The people who gathered that Thursday afternoon in the University of Baltimore’s H. Mebane Turner Learning Commons were searching for ways to stanch this senseless brutality. They came hoping that if this meeting produced some badly needed solutions to the city’s youth violence, they would be in the room where it happened.
It didn’t. So many people came with so much to say, and there was not enough time in the one-hour broadcast on Baltimore’s CBS affiliate to get beyond a cursory recitation of the problem.
But what made this meeting special and promising was that it was convened by two news organizations — WJZ-TV and The Baltimore Banner — an act that opened up a new front in the city’s flagging campaign to end senseless gun violence.
“We want to thank our media partner, The Baltimore Banner, as we tackle today a very serious problem plaguing our nation and our very own community,” Denise Koch, the WJZ news anchor who moderated the Town Hall meeting, said as she opened the program. “The Baltimore Banner is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to strengthening, uniting and inspiring the greater Baltimore community and that is exactly what we, together, hope to do this afternoon.”
That journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it, has long been a mantra of the news profession. But the “we” in Koch’s opening statement made it clear that the two media organizations were joining forces with others in the room to combat Baltimore’s scourge of youth violence.
And why not? Should today’s journalists, who often have some of the broadest knowledge of the issues they cover, simply be neutral observers? Or should they — with transparency — assume a role in bringing about good governance and the health of the communities they cover?
Journalists “are often called to be neutral in their approach to certain stories. But just because they will want to be neutral about many things does not require them to be neutral about everything,” Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, said during a recent interview with The National Book Review.
An authority on ethics, standards and practices of journalism for the highly regarded media institute, Clark called for some new thinking about the role of journalists.
“There is a space between neutral reporting and advocacy, but it has been a space without a name,” Clark said. “I am calling it ‘engaged.’” Every news organization should “identify in a transparent way their ‘distance from neutrality,’” he said, and say where they stand.
Shifting from neutral to “engaged” on matters of great importance to the communities they cover is an existential issue for a media that is being attacked by some who accuse news organizations of being an “enemy of the people,” and minimized by others who say it is not doing enough to help shore up this nation’s weakened infrastructure.
The necessity for this shift was signaled at the beginning of the town hall meeting when Mayor Brandon Scott offered this description of the complexity of Baltimore’s youth gun violence problem.
“Yes, it matters who pulled the trigger,” he said. “But it also matters where that gun came from, who bought the gun, who trafficked it here. It matters the mental state of who pulled the trigger, the mental state of the person that was the victim, what their family environment is like, what their economic situation is like. We can’t continue to allow us to think about gun violence, particularly gun violence that is around young people, as this one single action that has this magic bullet — one simple solution.”
The Baltimore Banner and WJZ-TV have rightly decided to aid the mayor and others in pursuing solutions to this complicated problem, not simply because it is good journalism, but also because this problem cries out for “engaged” journalism.
DeWayne Wickham is the public editor for The Baltimore Banner.