It’s Time for the Media to Look at Their Role in Philly’s Violence Crisis
Philadelphia’s not having a good year.
On the one hand, we’re on track to host the World Cup and MLB’s All-Star Game in 2026. Our two prestigious universities (UPenn, Drexel) are on the cutting edge of medical research, and our construction cranes are the only thing that might rival William Penn as mainstays in the skyline. On the other hand, the city’s murder rate makes The Departed look like 9 a.m. mass at an Arizona mission: 306 murders as of July 22, which puts us on track for 547 at year’s end, which is still, somehow, fewer murders than Philly had in 2021. (From 2008–2015, we averaged 296 homicides — ten fewer than we’ve already had this year.)
For those of you who don’t study urban crime stats like stock charts from 1929, suffice to say that Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, said “I’m looking forward to when I’m not mayor, so I can enjoy [public events] again” after a hail of deadly gunfire cut down a pair of Philly policemen on the Fourth of July. Mayors don’t say things like that, especially in times of crisis, and Kenney apologized for even hinting that he didn’t like his job. But when your city’s largest university — Temple, a place known mostly for Bill Cosby, Mark Levin, and one of the feistiest basketball programs in recent NCAA history — doubles as a three-time murder site since Christmas break, you’ve got bigger things to worry about than Paul Pogba’s hotel reservation.
Murder, like a shock-and-awe divorce, stems from a web of roots; it’s not just one thing that brings a city to this point. Philadelphia’s city controller has noted that the police make arrests in only two-fifths of gun crimes; the police have accused the city’s district attorney of being too soft on crime and emboldening crooks in the streets; and the district attorney, for his part, has accused the state legislature of making guns too easy to get and too hard to regulate. There are other factors, too — don’t underestimate the spike in antisocial behavior on airplanes, roads, and in stores — that aren’t quite as useful for power-grabbing or vote-getting. Last but not least, there’s the inevitability of crime in the poorest part of the poorest big city in the United States.
That last point is probably more relevant than anyone — me included — would like to think, because it’s a commentary on the culture of the city itself. No, this isn’t one of those op-eds where an Ivy League professor cherry-picks crime statistics from inner cities to claim that certain racial groups are more violent than others; this is an essay where a mid-major undergrad cherry picks media studies to claim that the city of Philadelphia has accepted defeat on crime.
Earlier this spring, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Layla Jones uncorked a long retrospective on the history of local news in Philadelphia and its suburbs. In the latter half of the 20th century, Jones alleged, shows like Eyewitness News and Action News would obsess over the supposed banality of violence in Black neighborhoods and beam images of crime scenes into homes that sat in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery County, all the while running ads for suburban lifestyle products. For decades, that was how some local stations paid the bills and kept eyeballs glued to their nightly newscasts. The narrative from Eyewitness and Action treated inner-city violence as normal, and inspired apathy among Philadelphians with the power and resources to push for change.
If Layla Jones needed any backup, she would have found it in none other than Columbia University’s Journalism Review. In 2018, a team of researchers led by Andrea Wenzel, Anthony Nadler, Melissa Valle, and Marc Lamont Hill found out that many people who live in the Black neighborhood of Germantown simply do not trust the local press. In interviews with CJR’s team, the people of Germantown accused the press of playing up neighborhood violence for revenue, deliberately sowing distrust between the Black community and law enforcement, and even conspiring to lower property values so that Temple (where, full disclosure, I’m a student) could buy land at cheaper rates. For their part, Montgomery County’s residents took umbrage at what they saw as coverups in their own local news, claiming that the opioid crisis and poverty went unspoken of in their papers and newscasts.
Together, CJR and the Inquirer paint a picture of the city’s killing crisis that’s more damning than anything a politician could say. (Well, besides not even wanting to run the show anymore. That’s going to take some time to get over.) If the city’s media culture treats the crimes that plague Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as normal, par pour le cours in a dead-end locale, then there’s an added temptation for the city’s police officers, government officials, or even the people themselves to see the same thing when they look out of their windows as the media shows them when they turn on their televisions. And if shootings, robberies, and irreversable altercations are just a part of life in places like North Philly, then there’s really no reason for anyone to try and reverse the cycle. Why try, anyway, when the government and the businesses can just clear out the land and sell it to housing developers?
There are plenty of reasons to sugarcoat this: I’m kind of in the media myself; I’m criticizing places I might have to ask for jobs in the next half-decade. Most of the reporters who cover these shootings are probably trying to look at the crisis with empathy and clarity. And besides, what have I done, personally, to make Philadelphia safer? (Absolutely nothing — I’m as much of a spectator in this as you are.)
But there’s also every reason not to: Shootings and violent crime aren’t just problems for the government, or even individuals. They’re problems for a media ecosystem that’s drunk on the spilled blood of Philadelphians and high on the cash that comes from selling stereotypes.
If our television stations and publications work to imagine a brighter future for the people they claim to serve, then they might be part of the solution to our problems. If not? Well, it won’t just be the shooters with blood on their hands.