Don't wait for the bullets to scream by.
In a morning panel discussion at NCEW's September convention in Denver, Henry Bryan, editorial writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer; Rhonda Chriss Lokeman, opinion page editor of The Kansas City Star; and David Sarasohn, associate editor of The Oregonian, shared how their papers treat violence on the editorial page.
The discussion focused mostly on youth violence, although Lokeman started off with a reference to 47-year-old Larry Gene Ashbrook's killing of seven Baptist church-goers in Fort Worth, Texas -- a mournful event that happened the opening day of the conference.
Maybe the worshipers would have been safe from Ashbrook's rage "if only the Ten Commandments had been posted," Lokeman said with a smirk. She called Congress' gun-policy solutions absurd and went on to try to persuade the audience that talking about violence requires editorialists to talk about the proliferation of firearms, which she believes is the real problem.
Lokeman urged that opinion writers provide a voice of reason for readers, one that cuts through the inaudible sounds coming from the National Rifle Association on one side and Gun Control Inc. on the other. We must be in the fact-gathering business, not just the opinion business, she said, and expose politicians and special interests for the money they represent.
"Follow the money trail," Lokeman said, then let the blame fly -- at the media for desensitizing the public, and at politicians for cutting money for mental health, for not supporting crime-prevention programs, and for allowing guns but locking up our children.
Sarasohn took issue with the widespread perception that teens are on a rampage of historic proportions. "There isn't an epidemic of youth violence," he said, but anyone would be convinced there is by looking at opinion pages dripping with sensational descriptions of young people and a culture of death.
If people saw only the media's image of kids, they'd have no clue how unique and thoughtful they are, Sarasohn said. He suggested that putting kids in adult jails and suspecting children who are packing nothing but Pokemon cards are a response to media images that make them out to be committing more crime than they are. Violence is on the decline, he reminded, and that is the message editorial pages should send.
"We're scaring ourselves away from kids," Sarasohn lamented. "[The average kid is] less scary than the average state senator . . . [and] more interesting than those in the newsroom." Get out and meet them, he advised.
Sarasohn is convinced that society has become prejudiced against youth. They are segregated in homes, in workplaces, and in public. "We should be exchanging ambassadors occasionally," he poked.
Editorial writers can help correct these wrongs, Sarasohn concluded. "We don't have a youth problem; we have an adult problem. And we need adults to act like adults."
Bryan told how The Philadelphia Inquirer has been proactive in discussing youth violence. Rather than simply reacting to violent incidents, he'd like to see us more often talk about and promote early childhood programs that he believes help curb violence and give children a better chance in life.
The Inquirer wrote 35 editorials last year and about 15 this year discussing solutions like Head Start. He urged that we climb on the backs of politicians and government officials who hold back solutions that "we know work" but are put off because they are costly.
While each panelist shared a different way to approach violence on the opinion pages, they shared a desire that our messages be frequent and inclusive of a variety of solutions -- and that we write off deadline about youth violence, not just when the bullets scream by.
NCEW member Elizabeth Houde is an editorial writer and columnist for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash. Her e-mail address is email@example.com