Monday, May 21, 2018

Ethical Journalism in an Age of Mass Murder

For a long time, there has been strong (overwhelming?) evidence that the media has influence over the number of people who commit suicide.  Called the "copycat effect" or "media contagion," it's basically the idea that when when the media reports on suicide, they influence more people to kill themselves.

"Research into suicide coverage worldwide by journalism ethics charity MediaWise found clear evidence that the attention given to the circumstances surrounding a celebrities who kill themselves is more likely to incite copy cat suicides."

For this reason, the media has best practices for suicide reporting: don't even cover suicides unless it's a noteworthy person, don't glamorize or romanticize it, etc.  This dedication to language best practice is fairly sophisticated - for example, the Associated Press even recently recommended against using the phrase "committed suicide."


Three years ago, Malcolm Gladwell published an article that posited a similarly intuitive (even obvious) theory on mass shootings.  I'll just quote his main point here:

"But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store."

The media's endless coverage of every mass murder is driving copycats...and no one is doing anything about it.  It's not that journalists individually know this and are OK with it - they're just trapped in a system that is designed to drive clicks and views, and endless coverage of mass murder is a profitable way to do that.  A better summary of this situation is made here.

We now have a stack of voices naming this out loud in the Washington Post, Federalist, Criminologists, Ethical Journalism Network, etc.


So, what to do?  There are many great, thoughtful proposals out there - here's one from the Columbia Journalism Review.  The gist is that we can still responsibly cover mass murder - driving awareness, resources, policy change, prevention, and free flow of information in our democracy - but limit the media contagion.  We can do this by not printing the person's name, picture, manifestos/ravings/message, or comparing kill counts.  Phrases like "deadliest shooting spree" or "gunman" create a morbid romanticism, even a gamification in a dark mind.

Another proposal is to call on the media to de-monetize coverage of mass murders.  Selling ads by spreading media contagion is a bit like selling soup prepared by Typhoid Mary.

We need a website written by respected authorities in journalism laying out these proposals. We need politicians to use their voice to raise the issue, we need grassroots boycotts for advertisers who buy ads on media that refuse to report responsibly.

Our journalists generally feel their work is a vocation, not just a job.  They're proud of the role they play in the nation's well-being and advancement, and I'm sure it's horrifying for a person to realize they're part of this morbid feedback loop - more murders, more coverage, more murders.  Just conjecture here, perhaps part of the reason journalists are so ardent in their support of gun control as a solution to mass murder is that they're aware of their role, and are looking for a scapegoat to restore their feeling of "the good guy." 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Poverty and Geography in Minneapolis

It's an open secret that concentrated poverty is at record levels and getting worse.  This has been occurring in tandem (it's a feedback loop) with a new structural unemployment that have stayed at bleak 40-year highs since 2012.

The short story is that even as our economy has improved and Americans in general have gotten wealthier, the bottom 20% or so have been left behind.  You can see that from 2000 to 2018, 5% of workers dropped off the face of the Earth. This is awful. 

Concentrated poverty is a big contributor to this - clustering poor people together means, as Ed Sheeran's song says, "the worst things in life come free to us."  Poor communities have higher crime, substance addiction, worse public services, less social capital, less opportunity, worse education, basically a basket of awful variables that form a Feedback Loop of Awful (let's call it FLA).  

This blog post is about geographic isolation - one of the variables in the FLA.  Of course, access to the rest of the city is valuable, so the cheapest housing is the least accessible.  I've now lived in the poorest, most violent, and highest minority part of Minneapolis for a year, and a few things have become empirically obvious to me. 

Take a look at this map.  To the bottom left you have the richest suburbs with the corporate jobs.  To the bottom right you have the airport.  To the right of the S in Minneapolis you have the U of MN, and to the left of the M in Minneapolis you have "the hood," North Minneapolis. 

Here's a closer look at the city and North:

Above the words "Near North," and to the west of 94,  is where the hood begins.  We affectionately refer to it as the "North."  It takes up the entire area to the northwest.  A few local knowledge things to note:
  • To the east of the river there are tons of resources, amenities, culture.  The North is separated by both a 10-lane highway and the Mississippi River. 
  • There is a train that goes from downtown to the airport.  It never reaches North.
  • 94, between the words "North Loop" and the junction with 35W, is forever deadlocked.  This short stretch of highway adds 15 minutes to your trip, every time.  This means any trip from the North to anywhere south or east is at least a half hour - cutting North off from the south and east of the state.  This is not true of land east of the river, where 35W runs north and south smoothly. 
  • There is a stretch of no-man's land between 94 and the Mississippi that is in hospitable.  It's industrial and ugly.  It's basically a DMZ to separate the rich and poor.
  • To get from the closest part of North to downtown is eminently unwalkable.  First you have to cross an intimidating, rusty concrete bridge (take a look below...yikes) across 10 lanes of I-94, and then 7 blocks of nasty, noisy, windswept industrial buildings before you reach downtown.  Again, a DMZ to separate the rich and poor.
What all of this combines to is isolation - concentration of poverty.  Some suggestions:
  1. Beautify the overpass bridge and the trip to downtown.  This would be cheap and easy...protect the pedestrians from the wind and noise of the overpass, repair the sidewalks, plant trees, set lighting, and incent those who own the industrial buildings to slap on a new coat of paint every once in awhile.
  2. Finish the train track across, into North.
  3. Incent walkable business and retail in the no-man's land. 
  4. Improve and expand local streets with a north/south traverse in mind. 
  5. Figure out some way to improve the deadlock on 94!