The Local Lens
Wed, Apr 08, 2015
By Thom Nickels
The "new" journalism of today can be quite sloppy and can lead to a lot of confusion. Let me explain:
Every once in a while, a crime story will catch my eye, and I’ll look into it. Recently, I came across an Action News 6ABC headline that read: Teen Shot Outside Port Richmond Mini-Mart Dies, Gunman On Bike Sought. The reporter states the address of the mini-mart as the corner of Amber and Cambria Street.
Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture, other than the fact that a gruesome murder has been committed? This Amber and Cambria street corner is clearly a Kensington address, not a Port Richmond address. The comments section that accompanied this story contained many messages addressing this fact.
My first thought when reading this report was, "Here we go again," even though I wasn’t all that surprised to read that another misidentification of Port Richmond had occurred. For many years now, both print and broadcast media have frequently misidentified the Fishtown-Port Richmond area. Not to be cynical, but I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
One reader comment, however, caught my eye. This comment alluded to the fact that 6ABC is controlled by folks who want to do everything in their power not to tarnish the Kensington name because, well, Kensington is currently cool and on the upswing, despite decades of a bad rep. But fact is fact, after all, whether or not the "new" Kensington is currently cool or not cool. "Traditional" Kensington is still a pretty dicey area while Port Richmond has never played that particular "game of dice." Port Richmond has never had much of a reputation problem.
I also don’t think that there are behind-the-scenes broadcast media hipsters who regulate the positives and negatives when it comes to using the name Kensington. While I subscribe to some conspiracy theories (the Kennedy assassination and the death of Pope John Paul I), the idea of a bunch of bearded, mustached guys in flannel shirts, skinny jeans and tats altering news headlines to save the reputation of the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby and Festival seems cartoonish and far-fetched.
Several years ago, the neighborhood misidentification problem had a different twist. That’s when I walked into a broadcast media camera crew outside Applebee’s on Aramingo Avenue. I forget why the film crew was there, but at that time, the misidentification problem was the reverse of what it is now.
News sources like 6ABC had a tendency to call most of Fishtown and Port Richmond Kensington. So, I took it upon myself to tell the camera guy to please remember that the area where he was filming is not Kensington. As it happened, he was getting a lot of people coming up to him, explaining where one neighborhood ended, and another one began. In many ways, the comments reflected the old neighborhood boundary line controversies, although everyone agreed on one thing: The area was definitely not Kensington.
In retrospect, I hate to think that perhaps I helped create the present day misidentification problem, because now the news media rarely uses the word Kensington. In fact, it seems they go out of their way to avoid using it.
While we’re on the subject of broadcast and online news, I’ve noticed another dangerous trend lately. That trend is to categorize what used to be called "petty news" as "breaking news."
Consider the case of the man who stole eight cans of Red Bull from the Wawa at 3222-48 Richmond Street: 6ABC reported this incident as a major robbery, because the Red Bull shoplifter was said to have "pushed" a cashier who tried to block his exit from the store. But really, what self-respecting shoplifter is going to let himself get caught if all it takes is a push to clear the exit? And when did shoplifting become breaking news?
A couple of months ago, there was a story on Philly.com about a protest at a college lecture, because of the lecturer’s views on rape. The story quoted the protesters, and described the scene during the lecture in which people held up signs and/or walked out.
What was left out of the story was a crucial element: Just what were the lecturer’s views that made her so detested and so controversial? This was left unsaid. To me, this seemed incomprehensible. How could any reporter—or that reporter’s editor—miss such a thing? The reader finished the story not knowing what made the protesters angry.
While I’ve been critical of Philly.com in the past for its sensationalistic, tabloid tendencies, I admit, the website has been slowly improving despite still having problems with what passes as "breaking news." Do we really need to know about every high school teacher who exchanges mash notes or who has a love affair with one of his or her older students? Are these really mega stories on par with the latest ISIS attacks? Years ago, even truly scandalous sexual molestation and abuse cases were reported on page 15 in The Philadelphia Inquirer not only that, they were condensed down into small box notations, almost as a journalistic afterthought.
When I was 16 years old, there was a huge sex scandal in my Chester County high school involving an English teacher and over 20 underage male athletes. The Daily Locals News, located in West Chester at that time, buried the incident in the middle of the newspaper, even relegating it to a small box item. It was as if reporting on a dog that had been hit by a milk truck. Today, that story would go viral.
It seems that journalism has yet to find a respectable middle ground when it comes to this topic.
Then there’s the very controversial subject of race. Fear of talking about race, or even alluding to the subject of race has become more of an issue than talking about real race problems.
In March, a CBS Philly story on the rape and robbery at gunpoint of a young woman at 3900 Richmond Street, by two underage teen boys, spelled out all the pertinent details of the incident, except for a physical description of the alleged rapists.
Descriptions of the two rapists were no doubt omitted because they were caught almost immediately. But if that were not the case, a thorough ID would have been necessary, because other women in the area late at night would want to know who to look out for: such as a boy with freckles, a crooked nose, a cleft chin, or a uni-brow. Without a physical description, everyone is left guessing, and guessing leads to confusion.
More bothersome, however, was the fact that the reporters did not say where the underage teens were from. Were they from the immediate neighborhood? Were they local Catholic school students? Were they kids from other neighborhoods who came into Port Richmond to cause trouble? It’s important to know these things because it gives residents a frame of reference.
Without a frame of reference, we don’t get the full story.