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Murder & Mayhem

04 April 2007
Wednesday, 8:44 AM

For the last few years, I’ve been getting the bulk of my world news from a number of New York Times RSS feeds. I’m sure you don’t need me to extoll the publication’s manifold virtues. However, as a Philadelphia resident, one thing the New York Times can’t give me is detailed local news. As my schedule’s density has increased, my ability to absorb the local goings-on through my usual channels (free weeklies and sheer osmosis) has decreased, so the time came to choose an RSS source for local news. Though known to be flawed, the Philadelphia Inquirer is ostensibly our city’s flagship newspaper. With a 178-year legacy and broader coverage than any other Philly paper I know of, it seemed like my best bet as a local supplement to the New York Times.

I can’t deny that the Inquirer has done a reasonably good job of keeping me abreast of local happenings, but I’m still often reminded of how spoiled I’ve become by the New York Times’ quality. Yesterday, my RSS reader summed up the issue more perfectly than I ever could:

NetNewsWire screen capture featuring a Philly.com article title “MURDER & MAYHEM,” followed by “(No description)”.

The Inquirer has a bloodlust, and it lives in a city that is more than happy to satisfy that bloodlust.

You see, we have a bit of a homicide problem; there were 406 of them last year. How do I know that? I performed a Google search for philadelphia homicides 2006, and the first result was the Inquirer’s interactive map of Philadelphia Homicides in 2006. Speckled with 406 little red dots, it lets me filter last year’s homicides by age, race, sex, time, or weapon. If I can’t be bothered to do that, I can skip ahead to Google’s third search result, where the Inquirer provides the same data in a more straightforward and accessible table.

Clearly this is interesting and valuable information. Our citizens’ fatal conflicts—especially when viewed in bulk—shine a pretty bright light on the city’s broader social, economic, and political problems. So I don’t decry the Inquirer’s collation and publication of this information. My issue is the apparent glee with which it is delivered. Take a look at some recent headlines:

There’s a giddy editorial fervor that seems to accompany each homicidal notch on Philadelphia’s bedpost. One is made to wonder if he is reading a newspaper or watching a PBS pledge drive. And if PBS isn’t your thing, the Inky is more than happy to provide you with network-style excitement:

  • Another family is left to mourn
  • An appointment for murder
  • A witness who never got to testify
  • “I just want to know where my son is”
  • “I pulled out the knife … stabbed her”
  • Gun violence explodes into once-safe areas

The drama doesn’t end with the headlines, either, exemplified here by the intro to this post’s titular article:

The cold-hearted killer beat the woman to death, but didn’t stop humiliating her, police said.

After she was dead, he placed a plastic bag and red pillowcase over her head, then tied a wool scarf around her neck, police said.

Investigators believe he drove the body to a vacant, wooded area in Kensington and dumped it. The unidentified woman was the city’s 101st homicide victim of the year.

But swiftly, by yesterday afternoon, the ghastly tally had reached 104 after a 45-year-old man was found shot to death in a house in Southwest Philadelphia.

So much for “Just the facts, ma’am.”

I suppose if I was the sort of person who really digs Bruckheimer blockbusters and Nickelback, I might appreciate this sort of journalistic embellishment, but I’m not and I don’t. Is there some obvious alternative I’m missing, or do I have to continue filtering this shit?

Filed under: Philadelphia

Comments Closed (12)

1. Brad Dielman says…  |  04 April 2007 / 9:22 AM

I here you, Rob. I've all but abandoned any local news via the usual outlets (newspapers, local television channels, etc.). The only way I stay tuned with the local happenings currently is through my local NPR station. They devote only a few minutes of news for my area, but its much better than what I would get elsewhere.

2. Brad Dielman says…  |  04 April 2007 / 9:26 AM

Sorry, my post should read: "I hear you" not "I here you." I haven't had my coffee yet this morning.

By the way, excellent podcast on your talk at South By!

3. Jeff Croft says…  |  04 April 2007 / 9:31 AM

If homocides are really a problem in Philly and we're taking in these kinds of numbers, I'd suggest that a database is the appropriate means of storytelling.

We do a lot of this database-driven journalism in Lawrence, and Adrian Holovaty has made a career of it at the Washington Post. Here are a few examples of the sort of thing I'm getting at:

Faces of the Fallen
Congressional Votes Database
Mining's Legacy (see especially the "legacy in numbers" bit on the right
Registered sex offenders database

Many news sources aren't yet convinced that this sort of thing is journalisim. Many still believe the only way to tell a story is through text. Good journalism, going forward, should be telling stories using whatever means si appropriate for that story (text, audio, video, data, infographics, whatever). But until there are more journalists in the field that think this way, we're going to be stuck with this kind of thing. It's unfortunate.

Adrian, who I mentioned before, is probably the foremost industry thought-leader in this area. I'd definitely recommend his blog entry A Fundamental Way Newspaper Site Need To Change. Great read.

4. Rob Weychert says…  |  04 April 2007 / 9:56 AM

Brad: I agree that NPR is a good news source, and we have some decent affiliates here. But I just don’t listen to the radio or podcasts. I’d rather read my news, and RSS is my preferred method. Decent global news feeds aren’t too hard to come by, but decent local news feeds really do seem to be the luck of the draw, and I suspect most regions are still pretty unlucky.

If more local rags understood Jeff’s point (and the Inquirer’s interactive map I mentioned above is a step in the right direction) and got over the tabloid drama, it would please me.

5. Terry Tolleson says…  |  04 April 2007 / 10:42 AM

As haunting as the interactive map is (and feeling somewhat safer to know that as a white male aged 26-40, I have a considerably lower chance of being a part of the annual total - if I lived in Philly), I find it quite useful and one of the best forms of data display I've come across on the web.

Elsewhere: I don't subscribe to any physical paper as Austinís local offering is beyond poor. The majority of writers are quite ridiculous and whether it be on the TV news or in the paper, itís about 90% reports on evil-doing. Iím honestly just tired of all the death, murder, crime, fraud, etc. that apparently is the only thing ever worthy of the news.

6. Jason Beaird says…  |  04 April 2007 / 1:02 PM

If I had to filter through those kind of headlines to get my news, I think I'd spend the first minute and thirty one seconds of every work day watching that happy morning commercial. Fortunately though, Columbia is quite calm for a metropolitan city...if you can call it that.

7. Rob Weychert says…  |  04 April 2007 / 3:39 PM

Jason: That Happy Morning video made me laugh out loud. I must say, though, that I think I actually prefer Philadelphia’s crime reality to Folgers’ rather unsettling fantasy.

8. Elliott Cross says…  |  12 April 2007 / 10:43 AM

I can agree that the news media, mostly television, has this desire to put the worst of human tragedy (?) on the shows. It's almost a sickness that they want to tell the world that the victim and their family are victims. Some truly are, but living near the Cincinnati area, we hear all too often of the shootings in the projects, with the poor victim who died. It usually comes out later that it was a drug deal gone bad, or a domestic disturbance.

I guess I am fortunate to be able to reach over and hit the on and off button for the t.v. or at least change the channel.

I guess a channel with nothing but good news on it wouldn't last too long on the air?

9. Rob Weychert says…  |  12 April 2007 / 10:51 AM

Elliott: My issue isn’t so much with the focus on unpleasant news. I think it's equally important to—if not more important than—the good news. I mean, we probably learn more from our mistakes than our triumphs. The problem I have is with this newspaper’s wanton injection of drama into the proceedings. Drama has its place in journalism, but requires a far steadier hand than the Inquirer has.

10. Elliott Cross says…  |  12 April 2007 / 1:10 PM

I can agree also, I guess that I wasn't very clear...not enough coffee while watching the news this morning.

They (news media) do tend to hype up the stories a lot. I remember, locally, one such instance where you would have thought that they sky was falling and the meteor was about to hit the planet because of their hyping of the 'tragedy' that occurred.

But, in some respects, I guess I can see why they do it. Some people need the over-exaggerated hype to draw them into the story. Much like using certain key words in type can trigger emotions?

Make sense at all or do I need to lay off the coffee now?

11. Richard Rutter says…  |  26 April 2007 / 6:32 AM

406 murders in a year for one city? Blimey that's shocking. The whole of England & Wales combined only had 706 murders in 2005-2006. Mind you that still sounds like a lot.

Fortunately my home city, Brighton, had no murders in that period, but our violent crime rates are significantly higher than the national average.

12. Rob Weychert says…  |  30 April 2007 / 2:15 PM

Rich: Yeah, it looks like the US homicide rate is about three times that of the UK. At least we can’t touch Colombia. Their newspapers must be loving life.

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