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When Hyperlocal Journalism Does Its Job

A 1,700-word piece in the Evanston RoundTable, about a 249-word Sun-Times story, has Evanston divided against itself.



An friend dropped me an amused note the other day: "A few thousand words about a 249-word story." The few thousand words—1,700-plus to be more precise—ran July 20 in the Evanston RoundTable under the headline "A Short Newspaper Article Complicates Reactions to Teen's Murder." The brief Sun-Times story that caused the complications ran July 6.

But I write to praise reporter Shawn Jones for his close examination of the feelings that ran high at a January 13 community meeting. Hyperlocal, one of journalism's new buzz words, doesn't mean hyperterse. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and when it's about you, it can go on forever. Jones did what the RoundTable, a free biweekly, was launched in 1998 to do: tell Evanston a lot about Evanston.

The Sun-Times story in question, "Notorious Evanston man slain," told the story of Leslie Calvin Jr., 19, "shot multiple times" on July 4 "while driving in the 300 block of Ridge Avenue, about a half-mile from where he lived. Police believed the shots were fired from another vehicle."

The Sun-Times reported that Calvin "had a lengthy arrest record for assault, drug and weapons violations" and that earlier in the year Evanston alderman Ann Rainey had written about him on her website. Questioning a towing fee that the city refunded to Calvin, Rainey had observed, "This individual has terrorized the south end of town since he was a kid. Now he appears to be on the road to, one day, getting away with murder."

"At 249 words," Jones reported, the Sun-Times article "drove a wedge between competing emotions in the community—sympathy for the family and concern about neighborhood violence—and seemed to have had the effect of splitting south Evanston in two." One camp focused on guns, drugs, gangs, and the safety of the neighborhood's children, the other on the "insensitivity" of Rainey and the Sun-Times.

In this view, Jones reported, "regardless of the activities in which Mr. Calvin engaged that contributed to his death—activities that all in the community acknowledged to be dangerous and wrong—Mr. Calvin . . . was a child of Evanston. . . . He lived his entire life in a stable home on Callan Avenue and was sincerely loved by countless friends and family."

Jones reported that at an Evanston city council meeting the day before the community meeting a former president of the local NAACP chapter had called on Rainey to apologize. Bennett Johnson protested that Rainey on her website had likened Calvin to "vermin, trash, rubbish, something that should be thrown away." Said Johnson, "Admittedly, he was a problem, but he was not a domestic terrorist."

A woman who said she'd known Calvin since he was a boy understood that "he lived by the sword and died by the sword," but even so, "a mother has lost her little boy." A neighbor said the "human tragedy and the loss of a lifelong neighbor should be the story, not gang affiliations and arrest numbers." Jones reported that a Facebook page established in Calvin's memory was laced with posts seeking Rainey's removal from office.

Ann Rainey
  • Ann Rainey

Rainey—who'd called the meeting, held at a police outpost on the Evanston side of Howard and attended by 50 to 75 people—didn't budge. "I will absolutely apologize to nobody," she said, recalling that a couple of months before he died, Calvin had "fired a gun across Howard Avenue in a shootout with rivals in the middle of the afternoon." Jones wrote, "She refused to back down from her conviction that the community needed to know that the shooting was drug and gang related. [She] called on the community to stop focusing on a newspaper article and start focusing on finding the killer and creating a safer community."

Even in these terrible times for the press, never underestimate the astonishing power of the printed word to consternate and focus. Here were neighbors of the Calvin family enraged for the most part by a single word—notorious—in a four-word headline that Rainey felt a need to point out she hadn't written. It wasn't even that the word was wrong; it was deemed insensitive.

The crowning detail in Jones's account was a comment by a policeman from Chicago's 24th District, across Howard Street. "My father was murdered on Madison Street in 2006," Officer Matthew McKenna shocked the crowd by announcing, after listening to them belabor the Sun-Times article for about an hour. When that happened, he said, the newspapers described his dad as a "shyster lawyer" in their coverage. Focus on issues like your gang problem, said McKenna, things you might be able to do something about. "You can't change what's written."

In December 2006, Joe Jackson, a west-side man, forced his way into a suite of law offices in the Ogilvie Center, locked and chained the door, and opened fire, killing patent attorney Michael McKenna, another attorney, and a mail clerk before a SWAT team shot him dead. Jackson had come to McKenna with a design for a toilet for truck drivers, and after researching the design McKenna told him he couldn't patent it because the same idea had already been patented by someone else.

I wondered who had called Officer McKenna's father a shyster. McKenna was on vacation so I couldn't ask him. But I searched online and found a tribute in the Tribune from a former colleague who hailed Michael McKenna's "good heart, open nature and generous manner," and a law partner who told the Sun-Times he was a "very jovial individual . . . avid bicycle rider . . . wonderful guy." Nobody in the articles I read seemed to think McKenna was a shyster except Jackson, who'd expected his invention would make him rich.

But if that's what Matthew McKenna remembers of the coverage of his father's murder, who can blame him? Our reactions to big events are highly personal and eccentric, and wading into them takes time, space, and a reporter like Jones who doesn't believe he's in the business of making the complicated sound simple.

Clarity on Gun Control

Journalists like to think they're the public's principal source of clarity. I couldn't read about Calvin without thinking about gun control, a hot-button issue to which the life and death of Leslie Calvin brought no clarity whatsoever. We need guns in our homes to protect us from the gangbangers, don't we? But when they're firing at each other across Howard Street in broad daylight, we're going to wish the authorities were more adept at confiscation.

The Chicago press recently pronounced with rigorous clarity on Chicago's discredited gun control law, and that's why the subject's on my mind. When the Supreme Court struck down our law, local columnists applauded. The Court had imposed an arguable interpretation of the Constitution on Chicago by a five-four vote, but what mattered was the bottom line: the Court had cut Mayor Daley down to size.

"Whose judgment about the value of guns to law-abiding citizens do you trust?" asked Steve Chapman in the Tribune. "Ordinary people defending their homes against criminals? Or a public official who is shepherded to work each day by police officers? The Supreme Court sided with Chicagoans who prefer not to be defenseless."

"And a few days after the Supreme Court ruled against Chicago's illogical handgun ban—thus rightly affirming the Second Amendment of the Constitution even here—Mayor Richard Daley had different ideas. . . " wrote Chapman's colleague John Kass. "I'm not advocating Chicagoans stockpile hand grenades and howitzers. These issues about where to draw the line will be debated in the courts. But the Second Amendment couldn't be clearer."

"Rather than denying law-abiding folks the right to self defense, Chicago would do better to work with state and federal governments to target the illegal gun trade that arms gang-bangers, dope dealers and other criminals," Steve Huntley wrote in the Sun-Times. And Richard Roeper declared, "I've said it before, and I'll say it now: If you live in this city and you believe the best way to protect yourself, your family and your house is to own firearms, you should be able to do so legally."

The pundits all seemed to regard Chicago's gun-control ordinance as a bull-headed exercise in authoritarianism that the Supreme Court had called out. But with due respect to Kass, the Second Amendment could be a lot clearer; if it weren't so murky, its meaning wouldn't be hotly debated more than two centuries after it was written. And if different people didn't need it to mean fundamentally different things, there'd be no debate. Gun control in Chicago might not work, but commentators who said "Right on!" to the Supreme Court were affirming it as an area of the law in which local jurisdictions don't get to make their own mistakes.

Here's the Second Amendment in its entirety: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." If we read it literally, there is no line to be drawn: the Constitution has no more regard for John Kass's concerns about hand grenades and howitzers than it has for Richard M. Daley's concerns about handguns—arms are arms. And when we read it literally, we see not a word about self-protection or the protection of our families or our homes. If that's what it is about, it's only because that's what the court has made it be about.

Which it has. Justice Samuel Alito wrote last month for the majority in McDonald v. Chicago that the court had concluded "the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home." In fact, "As we put it [in District of Columbia v. Heller, a five-four ruling in 2008], self-defense was "the central component of the right itself." (Those are Alito's italics.)

In short, it's the central component of the Second Amendment though unmentioned in the Second Amendment, and Chicago is forbidden to seek the same ends by its own means. These are wrinkles our pundits didn't let themselves get hung up on as they applauded the Court for bullying the bully. The press saw what it saw clearly, but it was blinding clarity.   

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