We take things for granted in Cleveland. One day, we’ll check out West Side Market, avoid those traffic cam tickets, and won’t get our hopes up about sports. Then there’s police violence and East Side shootings too. Some things never change…but is that the whole truth?
Searches for phrases like “East Side Cleveland news” and “West Side Cleveland news” produce starkly contrasting results. While the West Side enjoys a variety of coverage, “East Side” articles predominantly feature shootings and other violent imagery. Cleveland looks like a war zone between west and east, police and community. Important parts of the story are missing.
“[The media] does an injustice in shaping the perspective of who the enemies are and who the friends are,” Councilman Basheer Jones of Ward 7 says. “It creates this disruption of black and white when in reality that’s not the case. That perspective impacts policy, it impacts policing, it impacts which resources come into a community and which don’t.”
Research agrees. A study published in The Journal of Communication in February 2006 showed that between June and November of 1993 coverage of crime rose by 400 percent on major news networks and local news stations followed suit.
Another 2006 study published in the William and Mary Law Review reviewed the effect that increase of crime coverage had on public perception and punitive policies. Despite a steady decline in violent crime in the ‘90s, the public demanded more “tough on crime” policies. The result was the federally enforced Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act and individual states instituting their own harsh punitive policies throughout the decade.
Though tragic, the 2010s cases of Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford in Ohio brought some hope as they forced society to challenge its preconceived ideas of “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Despite this examination, both national and local coverage of marginalized communities has not changed. Instead, the circle of superficially negative coverage now includes the police. Ongoing reports of The Women of Imperial Avenue, the 11 victims of serial killer Anthony Sowell, include details of drug addiction and prostitution in their backgrounds. Several articles make sure to mention Sowell knew it was unlikely these vulnerable women would be reported missing, but they fail to examine what factors lead to that kind of vulnerability.
Currently, convicted killer Michael Madison’s nephew, Jaylen Latrell Plummer, is undergoing investigation for assault and the murder of his grandmother. While this is an opportunity to discuss intergenerational violence and inherited trauma; most reports only remind us of the grisly details of Madison’s case.
Most troubling is the deletion of any leadership or activism within the East Side community itself. Protests and vigils rarely get coverage. When they do, names of leaders are left out, calls to action go unlisted, and poignant details go unmentioned. It seems to continue a narration of victimization and a lack of agency for the people, leaving them voiceless and open to influence from outside.
When it comes to the East Side, the narration is one of continued conflict and tragedy without hope. This narration is wrong according to Gwen, an East Sider who requested to have her last name omitted.
“There’s neighborhood meetings happening here too,” she says. “There’s public transportation happening here too! There’s farmers markets happening here too! There’s kids outside playing more. My postman knows me and we’ve lived [in this house] for two weeks!”
This lack of holistic coverage of what happens in the East Side creates serious problems, especially when it comes to police reform.
“The media should do a better job in talking about the cops who are doing a great job, showing those stories as well – I think that plays a part in anxiety,” Councilman Jones says. “People have to see there are consequences for actions regardless of what type of position that you’re in.That if I’m harmed or hurt that people hear my pain. That’s the problem. No community feels like their pain is being heard and as a result you’re going to continue to have trauma.”
However, some believe it needs to go deeper than simply go after good cop/bad cop coverage.
“[The news media] is going to be upset about the police or conversely say ‘Oh the police did a great job with the murder…’ but they’re not going to look at what is really important in police operations and it’s right out there in the police findings in the consent decree and reform,“ says Dr. Candance McCoy, the director of policy analysis for the New York Police Department from 2016 to 2018.
As the public cries out for police accountability, it’s nearly impossible to find any local reports on the new disciplinary matrix for the Cleveland Police Department. Furthermore, there is little to no reporting on public meetings the CPD holds to get community input on policy changes. The more the media chooses to ignore the policy-making the less opportunity the public has to be a part of the process.
Detective Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, doesn’t see this changing.
“You’re never going to be able to stir the media away from making the headline of their story much worse than what it is or more catchy to draw attention and add controversy,” he says. “If a cop does something nice, that’s a story – but if someone makes a mistake, that’s a story for weeks.”
“The media has a job to do – to get viewers,” he adds. “That’s just the way things are.” A bleak outlook made bleaker by sensationalized headlines going viral.
“You’re going to hear what’s only on social media and that’s not journalism… it’s whoever gets the most hits and says the most outrageous things,” McCoy states. “You’re yelling about the police and you’re talking to a Russian troll.”
As much as we’d all like to believe we’re informed, we can’t forget that there were those with the best of intentions from decades before that believed they were too as they considered policy and signed bills into law.
“Don’t obsess about the individual event – what was the context of the event, what were the whys” Dr. Mccoy suggests – a good suggestion for avoiding bad policies with worse consequences.