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New Paths to Media-Community Engagement

It was 9 am on a hot summer Saturday morning Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to health
in Southern California – hardly the best time for promotion, wellness education and disease
a civic gathering. However, journalists, public prevention – this convergence was organized by
health leaders, prominent community activists and the Center for Communications and Community,
members of the general public filled a Los Angeles an institution that has been working at the
conference hall to capacity on Sept. 13, 2003. intersection of media and community for five years.

There had been previous Los Angeles meetings The center, which operates in many U.S. cities,
involving large numbers of journalists and provides a nexus for media-community engagement
George White community stakeholders. However, journalism that empowers community improvement advocates
Assistant Director
Center for Communications associations organized those gatherings and shaped and enhances the awareness and credibility of
and Community the agenda. Similarly, national journalism journalists. The center helps expand the scope and
associations and news organizations in various accuracy of coverage by building the communica-
parts of the country have held public forums after tions capacity of community-based groups and by
selecting the topics and participants. providing the resources and connections journalists
need to improve coverage.
The gathering on September 13 was different.
It was an organizational template for creating News coverage is important because it can frame
balanced engagement between journalists and the public’s understanding of issues and move
community stakeholders to address local problems. the public will. Gang violence, a scourge that has
afflicted communities of color in Southern
Faced with a crisis in Los Angeles, community California for many years, was the coverage topic
organizations and journalism associations pooled that generated the big turnout at the September
their resources and ideas for an unprecedented 13 forum. Community stakeholders attended on
engagement for answers. With the help of the short notice because gang violence had reached
Black Journalists Association of Southern California crisis proportions and because they realized that
and The California Wellness Foundation – a news coverage could enlighten the public and

Center for Communications and Community

help motivate communities
to address the crisis.

The outcomes have been

promising. Journalists in
attendance praised the forum Participants in the forum on gang violence. Photo courtesy of Jordi Ortega.
as an event that provided new
potential news sources and community perspectives community outreach. The tradition was born in
on this issue. Also, there has been new public the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when
discussion of alternative approaches to fighting many observers concluded that there was a chasm
gang violence in the wake of the forum. In between the Los Angeles area news media and
addition, some community groups are beginning Southern California neighborhoods – particularly
to view journalists as potential participants in communities of color. Some program officers at
public dialogues – not just recorders of events – the Ford Foundation were among those who had
as a result of the forum. reached that conclusion.

Such engagement is rare in an era of increasing The foundation offered to fund a media outreach
media consolidation in the United States. Fewer program and leaders from three journalism groups
and fewer newspapers, television and radio – the California Chicano News Media Association
stations are locally owned and the notions of (CCNMA), the Black Journalists Association of
localism and journalistic public service have Southern California (BJASC) and the Los Angeles
diminished as media giants have placed a greater chapter of the Asian American Journalists
emphasis on profits and leveraging the resources Association – agreed to create such a project.
of their disparate properties. (BJASC is an affiliate of the National Association
of Black Journalists and CCNMA, founded in
Southern California has been an exception because 1972, is the oldest association of journalists of
journalists in the region have a tradition of color in the nation.)

Context SPRING 2004 ISSUE NO. 2


Some of the panelists at the gang violence forum:

These pioneers formed an organization called the

Unity Media Access Project (UMAP). UMAP
Dave Clark aimed to help community stakeholders more
KCAL–TV news anchor effectively engage the media by showing them
how to write a press release and how and when
to hold a press conference and by providing
information on newsroom processes. Journalists
at these “access” forums also responded to
questions and comments about news coverage.

Jill Leovy
Los Angeles Times reporter
UMAP organized 30 instructional programs from
1993 through 1995. The National Association of
Black Journalists in 1995 honored its Los Angeles
affiliate with a “Unity Award” plaque for public
service for its role in the coalition.

The UMAP operation ended but the engagement

between the journalism associations and diverse
Dr. Robert Splawn
Director of Emergency Services communities of Southern California continued
California Hospital Medical Center when members of the three groups came together
in March 3, 2001 – the tenth anniversary of the
infamous Rodney King beating – to sponsor a
public forum on police reform and community
economic development.

Marleen Wong
This forum also included a new partner – the
Director of Crisis Counseling and Intervention Los Angeles Press Club. The four journalism
Services for Los Angeles public schools
associations organized the event and set the

Center for Communications and Community

agenda, including the questions that would be “Gang members are
addressed. This expanded journalism coalition – afflicted by pathologies.
with leadership from the Center for Com- Emergency rooms are
munications and Community and financial support often strained by gang-
from The California Wellness Foundation and the related carnage. There
Black Journalists Association of Southern California are mental health issues
Dr. Deborah Prothrow–Stith
– took part in the forum on gang violence for fearful community
in Southern California. However, journalism residents and guilt-ridden
associations did not control the agenda this time. survivors of victims. Gang violence is a public
health issue. Join us at an engagement for answers
Instead, the Center for Communications and on the mental and medical factors in a scourge
Community consulted with stakeholders such primarily treated as a public safety issue.”
as The California Wellness Foundation as well
as the journalism associations and made decisions To generate interest in the medical community,
on the topic, participants and forum issues after the center arranged the participation of
interviewing leading anti-gang activists, medical Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard
experts on violence and journalists who have School of Public Health, a national authority on
covered gang activity. When the research was community violence and a developer of public
complete, the center framed the topic and dubbed health approaches to gang violence. She provided
the forum, calling it “Gang Violence as a Public a keynote presentation.
Health Issue.”
The forum also included a panel discussion
The center selected the topic after concluding involving physicians and public health leaders
that the news media primarily frames gang with expertise on gang violence, gang intervention
violence as an enforcement issue – ignoring, for counselors and high-profile journalists. The panel
the most part, the public health dimensions.
discussed the impact of gang violence on public
Those dimensions were noted in the printed
health, medical approaches to addressing such
invitations for the forum:
violence and the coverage of gang activity.

Context SPRING 2004 ISSUE NO. 2


Journalists on the panel understood the

value of the gathering.

“Sources make stories,” KCAL–TV anchorman

Dave Clark told the forum audience. “Getting
a chance to sit next to doctors, administrators,
officials and others who know things about
this issue...I’m not eloquent enough to say
how valuable this is.”

The forum provided community stakeholders Attendees at the recent gang violence forum.

an opportunity to question the panelists and

to comment on the issue. One stakeholder, “Covering violent crime exclusively from a law
an anti-gang activist, prompted an outburst enforcement perspective is the shortest route to
of applause when he affirmed the goal of an attention–grabbing headline. But reporters and
the gathering: editors also have a responsibility to investigate the
causes of violence and to inform the public of
“We need to be searching for solutions,” he said. prevention programs. By broadening the coverage
“We need the media to spend time talking of violence to include a social and environmental
about solutions.” perspective, the media can help us improve the health,
safety and prosperity of our communities.”
The messages from the forum’s supporters continue
to resonate. More than two months after the forum, Yates’ op-ed cited the work of community-based
California Wellness Foundation President Gary activists who have counseled at-risk youth and
Yates explained the stakes in an op-ed commentary provided job training and mentoring to gang
in the Los Angeles Times: members, lauding their work.

Center for Communications and Community

The public discussion about the value of see the value of involving journalists in their
mentoring continued on Jan. 10, 2004 when programs. Some of them now plan to invite
the Los Angeles Times published an editorial that journalists to take part in panel discussions and
referenced the anti-gang initiatives of Harvard’s other activities at their events. Instead of waiting
Deborah Prothrow-Stith. for the media to engage in
community outreach, they
“Three years ago, the Harvard
public health school launched a
national campaign against gang
“ We need to be
are now prepared to reach out
to the media.

violence...the project encourages searching The value of this forum was

adults to volunteer...as mentors also evident to the Los Angeles
to young people from poor, journalists who had roles in
for solutions ...
single-parent households and the post-riot community out-
high-crime neighborhoods... reach programs created by the
We need the media to UMAP media education coali-
“Far too few anti-gang programs tion from 1993 through 1995.
are backed up by research and
spend time talking “
results, but studies show that As a former member of
a stable mentoring relationship UMAP’s board and as
helps kids stay in school and about solutions. assistant director of the
reduces drug use and violence – UCLA-based Center for
not for every young person, but Communications and
for a significant number.” Community, I look forward
to organizing more engagement–for–answers
Responding to the public discussion and to the opportunities that give equal footing to journalists
public forum on gang violence, organizations and community stakeholders in Los Angeles and
involved in gang prevention and intervention now many other cities nationwide. ■

Context SPRING 2004 ISSUE NO. 2