Situationist Contributor Paul Slovic recently contributed a post, “Too Many To Care,” about how the human mind quickly becomes numb to suffering as the number of people suffering grows. Show us one girl trapped in a well or one hiker lost on a mountain, and watch our nation turn to help. Show us hundreds of thousands homeless or starving and watch our nation turn the channel. It’s the cruel law of large numbers.
Baltimore is coping with two problems these days. First, a homicide epidemic: the murder rate, which started high, has only increased in recent years. Second, an apathy epidemic: as the killings escalate, public concern about them has waned. Recognizing the possible connection between increasing crime rates and increasing public indifference has led editors at the Baltimore Sun to try to connect their readers to what is happening in their community — to make personal and real what otherwise seems statistical and abstract. We have excerpted portions of Paul Moore’s recent column discussing this challenge.
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How to get Sun Readers Connected to Crime Epidemic
As Baltimore’s perennially high murder rate has risen ever higher this year, The Sun is using more of its resources to cover this dangerous trend. The economic and social consequences of the epidemic shadow the entire region while threatening the revitalization of urban neighborhoods.
The stakes are so high that exploring the roots of the problem and identifying possible answers are vital. But connecting readers to this ugly story is requiring newsroom creativity because reports of the relentless succession of murders can start to seem all too commonplace. And because it’s a tragically painful issue with no easy solutions, readers themselves can start to become numb.
To keep readers focused, the newspaper is using an array of journalistic options: stories that give a fuller-than-usual description of the personal tragedies involved; stories that explain in detail the challenges to the courts and police; stories that describe the effects on neighborhoods and businesses. These pieces are being produced with the label Confronting Crime: the Battle for Baltimore’s Future.
A box with this year’s murder count and a brief report on the most recent homicides also now appears prominently on the Maryland section front. In recent years, The Sun had published this figure once a month on the Opinion/Commentary page, reflecting the newspaper’s apparent ambivalence about reporting these disturbing numbers. This is no longer the case.
City editor Howard Libit explains: “The daily homicide box is crucial to reminding our readers of the violence that is happening every day in our city. It takes homicides that might otherwise be short crime digest briefs or police blotter items, and puts them front and center for our readers. This issue of violence is something that demands to be at the top of the agenda for politicians and residents, not just in the city, but the entire region.”
This and other efforts illuminate an interesting truth about newspapers in America. Informing readers about a challenging social problem risks alienating some readers and businesses, but it is vital to the newspaper’s leadership role.
The first part of a continuing series, titled “Losing the Streets,” was published July 1. It was designed to provide an overview of the increase in killings this year in Baltimore – interspersing details about the human cost of violence with reports on social and economic factors, public attitudes, law enforcement practices and demographic breakdowns. Written by Doug Donovan and Sumathi Reddy with contributions from a number of reporters and graphic artists, it was a well-executed but ultimately incomplete effort to explain this large and complicated problem.
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Since then, two other “Confronting Crime” front-page articles have been published: Nicole Fuller’s July 2 piece about the effect of increasing crime in the Charles Village and Remington neighborhoods, and Julie Bykowicz’s July 8 piece about the very heavy (and growing) workload of the unit for the State’s Attorney’s office that investigates and prosecutes nonfatal gun crimes in Baltimore.
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In my view, The Sun’s reporting on crime – whether investigative, breaking news or police blotter briefs – has generally been good, and sometimes excellent. But as Baltimore remains on track to surpass 300 homicides a year for the first time this decade, the coverage needs to be broader and deeper, focusing more attention on possible answers.
The Sun’s series on crime and the decision to allocate additional newsroom resources are important steps.
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To read all of Paul Moore’s column, click here. To listen to a NPR, Talk of the Nation story, “Numbed by Numbers,” including interviews of Paul Moore and Paul Slovic’s colleague and collaborator, Ellen Peters, click here.