Janine Jackson interviewed the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Layla A. JonesAbout “Lights. Camera. Crime,”For the April 15, 2022, EpisodeThis is CounterSpin. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Janine Jackson You can turn on local TV news anywhere in the country and you will see the exact same thing: two hosts, most likely a man or a woman, joshing between each other in between carefully edited clips, a weatherman in front of a screen, and some sportsand crime. There is a lot of crime.
Police-taped streets, shootings, stabbings, and muggings followed by people marching off in handcuffsoften. A call was made for viewers to tip into a Crimestopper hotline. You’re watching Eyewitness News,Or a variation on the Philadelphia format in the 1960s.
Together with Action News (corollary), this format didn’t just revolutionize local TV news, attracting viewers and the ad money that comes with them. It made viewers look in particular directions, presenting Black Philadelphians as threats and dangers through the lens of pathology.
The Philadelphia InquirerEngaged in a ProjectLooking at the roots of racism in America through institutions established in Philadelphia. Lights. Camera. Crime,This is an early installment. Our guest reports on a news format that is widely influential and its impact. Layla A. Jones. She joins us by phone from Philadelphia. Welcome to CounterSpin,Layla Jones.
Layla A. Jones: Hello, thank you so much for having me.
JJ: It’s strange to think of the Eyewitness News format Start; for many people, it’s the only sort of local TV news they’ve ever known, is this kind of crime, crime, crime, here’s a penguin at the zoo, you know? What did you find out about the origin of local TV news?
LAJ: Yeah. I think you’re exactly right. This was a feeling I had while reporting. It was the kind of news you think just existed but it was actually created and intended. Can I also say that the intro really wrapped up this whole piece. I don’t see what else I can possibly add.
Yes, I did learn reporting from the creator of Eyewitness News. It was founded in 1965. He was just 30 years old at that time. Prior to Eyewitness News news, news was read by a single middle-aged or older white male who read through the news in a radio format. This was called a radio news reader format. Al Primo, who created Eyewitness News, discovered that multiple reporters can be added to the station’s screen with their original reports.
He was amazed to learn that. He created a family consisting of reporters and anchors. The male and female anchors that you mentioned were able to banter back and forth. The rise of infotainment was what we called it in the piece. It was a mixture of news and showbiz, and it was done to draw attention and increase revenue for the stations. Before that, the news wasn’t profitable. But it was a major moneymaker for networks.
JJ: It was so popular that it was heard all over the country. I guess let’s talk about the context in which this is happening in Philadelphia, because as this infotainment format is growing up and flourishing, this is a time of white flight and changesdemographic, racial changesin Philadelphia. That context or backdrop is crucial.
LAJ: Yes, exactly. It did spread, as you mentioned. Eyewitness News, then Action News, came later. They went to more than 200 US towns, but also went global with that format. But, yeah, when it was coming up in the late ’60s, and then Action News in the early ’70s, at the same time, there was this suburbanization and white flight happening in urban centers, and for a variety of reasons. After the civil rights movement there was a shift in industry and work in cities. But, the news was also broadcasting fear and danger about urban life and the city as something very Black and dangerous.
The piece focuses on the fact that viewers were frightened by this depiction of the urban environment. The lab showed that people were more likely to associate crime with being Black if they watched local TV news. This made them more inclined to support criminal justice policies that encourage mass incarceration such as longer sentences or even the death penalty. And so the way that TV news portrayed Black and urban communities really did affectit does affectpeople’s public opinions of Black people and of our communities.
JJ: Let’s talk a little bit about what that format was. One reporter that you spoke toand one of the great things about the piece is that you really do talk to a lot of veteran journalists who were therea guy, Vernon Odom, describes the format as, You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll watch him die.
So it’s no secret, internally, that they’re doing a particular kind of coverage. In fact, they were told that consultants had told them that crime was not their thing. You want to join crime. The question is: What crime? Crimes committed in which community, by whom? They’re making decisions. It’s not an accident, the way this news looks and the effects that it has.
LAJ: Yes, exactly. It is important to note that the events that led to these formats’ rise were multi-layered. First, it was being managed at the top and then, basically, all the way to the bottom by all white people. Because 1965, 1970, and this was all new, a lot of these people were very young. So they’re all learning together.
They are also trying to attract, especially Action News, a suburban audience. Our suburbs are more white. So they’re trying to attract a white, suburban audience, because they believe that’s where the money is, and that’s what’s going to draw advertisers.
We also looked at commercials. A lot of the commercials in between these news segments featured white families, and white picket fences, and things that you don’t really see in the cities that they’re reporting about.
So with all those layers going on, what Action News” found to work for them, what shot them up past their competitor, Eyewitness News, was focusing happy, upbeat and community-oriented stories in the suburbs. So the stories about backyard festivals or charity events, they’ll have a photographer go out there just to cover those good events, to make those people feel seen, and to make sure they tune in and watch the news.
However, crime stories are the stories that fill up the newscast and can be quick, cheap, close by, and easy to cover. This is what Larry Kane, a veteran anchor, told me. He said, “You know, the photographer would just take the blood, shoot it, then you’d shoot the scene. Then you’d shoot the victim and whatever they have to tell you, and it takes 20 seconds.” Another aspect of this format was speed.
This created the dichotomy. And, again, I like to say that I don’t believe, from talking to anyone, that it was like, We hate Black people and we just want to make them look bad. It was a complete lack of care. And then, once they were informed, which the stations had been told is harmful, they didn’t change their approach. And I think that’s really important, too.
JJ: Because it allows people speak, the piece has complexity. People are complex. This is a long, ongoing conversation and struggle. It goes back on media portrayals and impacts of Black peoples and brown peoples, which goes back as far as the founding. I always recommend the book. News for All the PeopleJuan Gonzalez and Joe Torres on this, which is great.
And then some of our listeners are going to remember the Kerner Commission report, back in the wake of 1967 unrest, that talked about the problems that we’re just talking about, saying that the news is pathologizing Black communities, and it makes it seem as though only white people have full lives, you know, and go to PTA meetings. Black reporters have been trying to navigate this from the beginning, haven’t they? Their experiences and different strategies were fascinating to me. I was glad to hear those voices in this piece.
LAJ: Yeah, it’s funny, because even before reporters were really a thing, Black people have been correcting media narratives. One example I have to mention, which happened in Philadelphia in 1793, was that Black leaders had to publish their version of news in order to correct a racist account about their work during the yellow fever epidemic.
Trudy Haynes was one of the pioneering African American journalists I spoke with. She was 95 years old and was the first Black woman to be hired as a news reporter at Eyewitness News in Philadelphia in 1965. This was something Al Primo had in mind. He said that he discovered that people wanted to see black people and brown people on the news.
She said that she went out and tried to do whatever the brown story was. She said that she always tried to find the color. She did what she felt the story needed. She demanded that the editors use certain images in her story. Usually, she was talking about images of Black people as positive, productive, normal, just like us.
Vernon Odom also said something very similar. He said that even when covering crime, violence, or disasters, he tried to explain the social context to his Black colleagues. They have always worked hard and I believe a lot of Black people want to represent our communities correctly.
One thing I did was to ask Ms. Trudy Haines if her work at the station had caused institutional changes. And what she said was, I don’t know if they felt the same way I did, but she said, I just tried my best and I stayed on as long as I could.
JJ: Yeah. It is always a question. Do you go build a whole ‘nother ship over there? I think we have always been able to do both, and hopefully support one another. And it’s very important topeople aren’t calling for just more upbeat stories about Black people in the news. Unpacking negative stories about Black communities is essential to present a more humanized picture. It also requires being able and able to discuss racism and white supremacy.
And just to go back for one second to that format, one of the things about the format is that it doesn’t do follow-up. You see the crime, you see the violence, but it isn’t the practice of an Eyewitness News station to go back to that community, to go back to that family later. And it’s that depth and complexity that’s part of what people are demanding, are calling for.
LAJ: Exactly. It was, according to one expert I spoke with, extractive. Like they just drop inwe’ve heard of parachute journalismget their story and go, and that’s just because that’s what it’s designed to do. It wants to be fast, it wants it to be fast, it wants it to get the attention of the newscast. It really isn’t necessarily about telling the best story. I spoke to reporters and anchors from the past and present. They felt like print journalists, but they are able to tell a more complete story and are quick to get it done. And so that’s how we kind of get where we are now.
JJ:It’s also very affordable.
Well, this interrogation of institutions and practices, and I know anyone listening knows we’re not talking about history; we’re talking about history because of the way that it relates to the present. It’s part of a bigger project that has deeper intentions than most.
I’d like to ask you to tell us a little bit about the Inquirers ProjectThis piece is part A More Perfect Union. Because listeners will know that after George Floyd, there was a time when we kept hearing that there would be a reckoning. Every year, we get a reckoning. We hear that we’re reckoning with racism in this country.
However, media outlets seemed to take this more seriously than usual, to see themselves also as institutions that need a look inside and to consider their role. And that’s what this A More Perfect Union project is about, isn’t it?
LAJ: Yeah. The Perfect Union: Philadelphia InquirerErrin Hines created the site. She is our contributing editor, and she is also the founder of The 19th. The overarching view of the project is that Philadelphia was home to many first institutions, such as the first hospital, first prison, and first bank.
So if we talk about institutional racism, we’re looking, in a lot of places, to Philadelphia to figure out how those institutions were founded, and how, from their beginning, racism was baked in. Then we’re going forward through the present to see how it’s still affecting people, tracing it through that origin point till today. Then we look ahead to see if these institutions are making changes. Why or why not? Where can they make positive changes? And how can we make America more inclusive?
JJ: Yeah. Yeah. Finally, no one you spoke to believes the work is complete or has a rose-colored glasses view of it. We will soon see how radical the media are going to allow institutional interrogation to be. But if we don’t fight for it, then what are we doing? And there’s a lot we can learn along the way.
LAJ: Yeah. I will confirm that in the First chapterThe InquireI took a look at it. It was founded in 1829. A freelancer was hired to look into the racial hiring discrimination. It is something I believe media organizations, especially since they are so public-facing, are trying very hard to look into.
JJ: Yeah. That was Wesley Lowery. And he quotes Rev. Mark Tyler, who says, I don’t know if the Inquire is capable of the change that is needed, just like I don’t know that America is capable of the change that is needed. But I hope it is. It sounds about right. Any final thoughts?
LAJ: One thing I wanted to mention about the importance and these stories is that they kind of bringing into the right now: In Ukraine, with the war going ahead, they had African American human rights aides coming over to help. They also put out a Press releaseThey fear that they will be subject to racism from the Ukrainians.
And the reason that they said that Black people might especially be victim to that kind of harm and treatment is because of how they’re portrayed in the media, and because Ukrainians don’t usually see African Americans. And that’s the whole problem with the TV news, that it’s portraying Black people to people who dont even live around them, don’t live around us.
This just shows how important it is for public opinion to be shaped by false and not objective narratives.
JJ: All right, thankyou very much. We’ve been speaking with Layla A. Jones, reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. You can find lights. Camera. Video: Crime: How a Philly-born brand of TV News Harms Black America. Inquirer.com. Layla Jones, thank You so Much for Joining Us This Week CounterSpin.
LAJ: We are grateful.
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