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Richard Steele On Racial Disparities In Chicago, 2011 News Stories That Confronted Them

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As 2011 winds to a close, reflecting on the issues Chicago confronted this year can help poise the city for progress in the future.

In that vein, WBEZ's Richard Steele hosted a panel discussion last week on the station's newsmagazine, Eight Forty-Eight. Joined by journalists Alden Loury of the Better Government Association, and Sue Ontiveros of the Chicago Sun-Times, Steele dissected some of Chicago's biggest stories involving race from 2011, including the DREAM Act, media coverage of racially-charged conflicts in Lakeview and the significance of February's mayoral election results.

Steele, a South Shore resident, award-winning radio host and correspondent for WBEZ, spoke with HuffPost Chicago about his take on what this year's news, and the panel's conclusions, say about this city and the issue of race.

HP: Have you found Chicago to be particularly responsive to discussions of race politics, or do you think it’s an issue that, as a city, we tend to skirt?

RS: I think it’s more of the latter--people tend to not talk about race until some situation occurs. People talked about race when Harold Washington was running for mayor. Both blacks and whites talked about race a lot during that period, because obviously that was the first time that anybody black was running for mayor. But honest conversations about race don’t take place as a matter of course.

During the panel discussion on Eight Forty-Eight, Sue was talking about crime reporting--about how the issue of race is interjected into our news coverage here. How would you evaluate the way Chicago covers race issues in the city?

I don’t know if you’ve heard this story, this is a true story though. There was a shooting that took place on the South Side this year. Somebody was killed, and they’re talking to some people who live in the neighborhood. There was a black kid who was about five or six years old, and, in talking to the kid, the news reporter got a piece of tape on which the kid said that he’d like to get a gun. And they isolated this tape to make it look like this kid wanted to also be a gangbanger. The actual tape, the entire taped piece was that the kid wanted to have a gun so he could be a policeman. So he could do something about the stuff that’s been happening. But that never got on television.

It just so happened that one of the reporters at that television station, who is a friend of mine, as a matter of fact, found out about that and, at risk of losing his job, he sort of clandestinely put it out there, and the Black Journalists’ Association got involved. The station kind of defended their the editor who had made the decision to [cut it in that way], but it was taken off [the air]. I think it ran once or twice, and then there were some complaints, and then they took it off. And that was an example of what African-Americans feel was a really bad decision about how to cover something that happened in a black neighborhood as it relates to violence.

Does Chicago news do an ethical job of framing these stories appropriately in general?

They’ve done a better job in the last 10 years or so I think. There’s always the question of whether or not somebody who is not black can adequately cover and understand the depth of the story that takes place in the black community, or something that has to do with African-Americans, and I don’t know if I really buy that argument. I think if a person is a good reporter, and can be sensitive of covering the story, a competent news person following the rules of journalism can talk to some credible people get the story right. I think Chicago has done a better job, and it can be better than it is now. I think there’s more to be done.

After recapping notable events in the past year, did you feel optimistic about the direction in which Chicago and its citizens are heading? Are you concerned? What do you think this year foreshadows for the city’s future?

One of the positive stories, even though this is a positive story today, it’s also a reflection of how politics had been: the decision in federal courts about the entrance exam for the fire department some years ago. It was determined that the exams weren’t fair, and as a result, X amount of African-Americans should now be allowed to train as firemen. I think that was a positive step and a good sign.

Any stories you’ll be following closely in 2012?

A pressing current situation, the redistricting, I think is going to be a real fight. The reality is, the African-American population of Chicago has decreased by over 180,000 people. The Latino population has increased by about 25,000, so obviously when you’re making these new ward maps, that’s got to be reflected.

There are a couple of wards, like Ald. [Richard] Mell’s ward and Ald. [Ed] Burke’s ward, that have white guys representing largely Hispanic wards. The possibility exists at some point that the people will say, why don’t we have an alderman who looks like us? But at the same time, these two guys have a lot of power in city council. If people have to wait getting a Latino alderman elected as opposed to keeping both of those guys, who have a lot of clout, who can make sure your garbage gets picked up, can make sure a snowplow will come through your block when you have a blizzard--they have the kind of influence they can get things done. So now to be a resident of that ward you might say yeah yeah, I’d like to vote for a Latino guy or woman to be alderman, but these guys, they’ve got the power. I think it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.