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This is my brain on local TV news

Thirteen and a half hours of broadcasts on looting leave a day of impressions without a trace.

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RACHEL HAWLEY
  • Rachel Hawley

Shortly after 5 AM on Monday as many Chicagoans were just waking up and turning on their televisions, CBS2 was broadcasting footage of a mostly desolate Loop shot from one of its roving vehicles. Police lights flashed across the horizon of the grainy footage. The video was combined with the crackly voice of a reporter phoning in. She told viewers that the Chicago River bridges had been raised. The screen flashed text: "Chicago police respond to multiple smash & grab break-ins all morning," and "Looting & unrest overnight across downtown Chicago."

There was a slow-motion video clip of a group of Black youth standing on a street corner. "We know that police are investigating an officer-involved shooting," the reporter said. "Someone started shooting at officers, officers shot back, no officers were hurt, we do not know if the offender was hurt . . . police are investigating that situation over at Lake and Michigan." It was unclear how that information related to the image on the screen, but it didn't matter; it was soon replaced by a live shot of the smashed doorway of a Dunkin' Donuts.

"It's been a very tense and chaotic night for Chicago police officers," the reporter said, her voice urgent. "Hundreds of people looting so many stores from the Gold Coast to the South Loop . . . people breaking into banks, hauling out ATM machines . . . just down the street officers were standing nearby, they were clearly outnumbered in all of this. We don't know if this is organized, we don't know if this is planned."

"Chaos erupts in Chicago," the anchor of the NBC5 6 AM newscast announced over images of cops milling around the Magnificent Mile. "LOOTING DOWNTOWN" the text read on screen. A reporter in the station's "control center" led the coverage, saying her crew "moved inside because there were gunshots very close to our location. It has just been a very chaotic few hours downtown." She said there were "hundreds of looters . . . This rioting now going on for nearly five hours." As the reported segment began, images of a swarm of cops in riot gear was interspersed with ones of people carrying handfuls of clothing and other items down the street.

"Police put out that call, 'all available units,' asking for help as they were trying to contain an outraged mob scene. The rioters hit the streets just before 12:30 this morning, targeting high-end stores all along Michigan Avenue: Gucci's, Coach, Macy's . . . even the Jewel was hit." As she spoke there were video clips of broken store windows, empty shelves, flashing police lights. The crowd "was turning on police," the reporter said. We then watched a white armored CPD truck (likely a decommissioned military Humvee) roll through an intersection to the sound of staticky police scanner audio. The segment concluded with a back-and-forth between the reporter and the anchor about just how chaotic the situation still was and how multiple things were happening in different parts of downtown at once. A few minutes later 15th Ward alderman Ray Lopez was on air saying the looting was coordinated through social media.

Over on ABC7 the wee-hours newscast was capturing live shots of a crowd of Black people running through a Potbelly's at State and Lake. "People jumping the counter, people taking whatever is behind the counter, people taking drinks, trying to get into the cooler," the reporter said as she peered through the window at the people inside and the camera shakily zoomed into the store. Meanwhile WGN was broadcasting a report live from a ransacked Lincoln Park Binny's.

In case you didn't grow up with the rhythm of local TV news, the broadcasts are structured around syndicated national programs like the Today show (NBC), Good Morning America (ABC), Judge Judy (CBS), and The Wendy Williams Show (FOX). The newscasts on Chicagoland's TV stations start early: 3 AM on CBS (channel 2); 4 AM on NBC (channel 5), WGN (channel 9), and FOX (channel 32); 4:30 AM on ABC (channel 7). News coverage continues virtually uninterrupted until 7 AM on ABC, CBS, and NBC and until 10 AM on WGN and FOX. After that there are one or two hours of broadcasts around noon, then another block of news programming after 4 PM until the prime-time evening programs kick in. The last daily news broadcasts run in the 10 PM hour. According to a 2018 study by the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Media Engagement, nearly 80 percent of Chicagoans turn to television to get their news (the second and third most-frequently cited sources were family and friends and social media).

As a card-carrying millennial journalist I hopped on Twitter as soon as I heard about the looting. It's there that I saw that the break-ins into some of the city's most prosperous shopping areas had begun after Chicago police officers shot a Black man in Englewood. I saw images of a standoff between rows upon rows of cops and Black civilians on a residential street and a picture of a gun in the grass that CPD alleged the man, Latrell Allen, had shot at them. There was also a furor of tweets outraged at the tone of the local TV news coverage. But I knew most people would turn to the local news shows to find out what happened, so I decided to see what my impressions would be if I only watched TV news the rest of the day.

As the morning went on the stations tied sound bites from press conferences by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and superintendent David Brown with footage of people rummaging through big-box stores and luxury retailers. Eventually these scenes were supplemented with live shots of neighborhood residents cleaning up glass and debris, board-up crews hard at work, and short interviews with affected store owners. Most of the people interviewed were white. For hours, not a word was mentioned about the possible touch-off for the unrest being a police shooting of a Black person on the south side. There was a "massive ongoing investigation into what spurred this looting overnight," an ABC7 reporter relayed from in front of the broken windows of a Lincoln Park Apple store near noon.

In the early afternoon, anchors and reporters began discussing the shooting of Allen and reiterated officials' statements that he was a 20-year-old man who'd shot at cops, and not an unarmed teenager as had been rumored on the Internet. Brown's statement that "misinformation" on social media was the spark that ignited the unrest was quoted repeatedly. As the day wore on, doubt continued to be cast on the idea that Allen didn't deserve to be shot while we learned that CPD had no video of the shooting because the officers involved were in plain clothes. There were segments featuring familiar anti-violence voices like Father Michael Pfleger on the south side and Reverend Robin Hood on the west side. Pfleger actually questioned why police didn't intervene to prevent the looting if they saw it being coordinated on social media, though he quickly added—and the TV reporters reiterated—that he wasn't blaming the police for what had happened.

Then there was more urgent breaking news: the impending severe weather and possible tornado (an actual tornado hit Rogers Park on the far north side around 4:30 PM). The newscasts led with weather, then transitioned to more looting coverage, then had the latest on the coronavirus pandemic. Coverage of these extreme events was infused with the same audiovisual vibe: fast cuts of footage capturing some kind of action; urgent orchestral notes, percussion, or the pop and slap of a bass guitar; statements from reporters and anchors delivered with high-key gravity, especially about the looting:

"Ongoing unrest in the city of Chicago"

"Chaotic scenes"

"Victims of mass chaos and destruction"

"Many are asking how did this happen so fast and why"

"Violent crime spree"

"It all added up to chaos"

"Pillaging"

"Growing concern as violent crime rises that the city is up for grabs"

"Sudden eruption of violence"

"Best Buy parking lot resembled a war zone"

"This is a dark moment for the city"

"Vandals showed up with boxes of rocks and getaway U-Hauls"

"People breaking into banks"

There were many interviews with white people saying things like "This has nothing to do with what's going on and the peaceful protests, it's straight up theft." And with jewelry store owners on Wabash saying things like "We're gonna end up like a third world country . . . it's emotionally draining to have them come in for a third time." And with Black community leaders saying things like "Looting is not the answer."

Again and again and again there were images of Black people moving across dark streets in large groups, standing around, running through stores with broken windows, walking with armfuls of merchandise. And then of crowds of cops in riot gear, swarms of police vehicles blocking traffic. The more I watched, the more I lost a connection to what was being shown—the images and video were often unconnected to the live voiceover reporting and lacked a chronological or narrative structure. Instead I was left with a feeling, a sense of agitation in my body and a rush of excitement in my mind, like after a long fight sequence in an action movie. There were bright colors and flashing lights, sounds that amplified a sense of suspense and danger.

The entire experience produced a kind of stupor that kept me watching without really seeing. It took some time to realize that certain images and video piped into my eyes depicted extreme and unexplained violence by police. One video clip that replayed consistently on WGN captured a crowd of cops beating a thin Black man with shoulder-length dreadlocks. The footage was shot shakily from across a street. In the context of the full newscast it implied that a looter was being punished by officers. But we weren't actually told anything to explain the moment captured on video. We don't know if the man was caught stealing something or just passing by on the street. We don't know why he was targeted by so many cops at once. We don't know what happened to him. Along with the high-pressure cascade of other, unconnected images it was just something to absorb and accept: cops beat a Black man; Black people are stealing things; white people are cleaning up; cops are out in large numbers with sophisticated equipment; there's a mess in the city's most popular shopping destinations; business owners are angry and frustrated.

Toward the evening, demands for explanation for the unrest reached a fever pitch and CBS2 was ready with answers. Reporter Dave Savini's interview with the mother of Latrell Allen (who had by then been charged with attempted murder of police) was an "exclusive" first broadcast on the 6 PM news and rerun throughout the rest of the night.

"Where were the gunshots?" Savini asks at the beginning of the report. Allen's mother, Latricsa Allen, stands on a sidewalk with an elderly couple, Allen's grandparents, and speaks into the microphone with her face mask lowered.

"There was two in his back and one in his face, and I think he got grazed in his shoulder," she says, her voice swelling with emotion. She's fighting back tears. "He said total they shot him five times."

Savini's voiceover cuts in, explaining that Allen's mother and grandparents spoke to him in the hospital. Photos of Allen appear on screen. Then, an aerial shot of an intersection of a residential neighborhood, a crowd of people and at least a dozen white squad cars clogging the streets.

"This was the scene yesterday after a police foot chase in Englewood ended with shots fired," Savini says. Back to the interview with Latricsa Allen.

"He said, 'Ma, the police shot me.' I said, 'They shot you?' He said, 'Yeah they shot me five times.' I said, 'Latrell did you shoot them?' He said, 'No mama, I did not shoot them, I was just running.'"

Savini over shots of a park: "She says another one of her sons got into a fight with a younger male from the neighborhood at this park. Latrell was there, too. Someone flagged down police and started chasing those who ran, including Latrell."

Back to Savini interviewing his mom: "You're saying your son was just trying to run away," he says, as Allen nods emphatically. "And he was not armed?"

"No he was not armed," the mother says.

"Police say that's not true and tweeted this picture of a gun recovered at the scene of the shooting," Savini's voiceover pipes in as the video transitions to a still image of a tweet from CPD spokesman Tom Ahern that includes an image of a handgun laying in the grass. "They say officers were fired upon and returned fire."

In the next shot Savini talks to a woman in a grassy lot. "So the police officer's where you're standing and Latrell is down here?" he asks her, gesturing up the lot. "Yeah," she says.

"This woman, Tenisha Caldwell, claims she saw the final moments as officers opened fire," Savini reports over shots of him, Caldwell, and Allen's mother looking around the grass in the empty lot. "She says he had no gun."

"He was running from them and he stood right here, the officer, and just kept shooting at him," Caldwell says on camera.

"There's talk that there was a gun recovered," Savini says to her.

"No, he didn't have any gun," Caldwell responds. "He didn't have anything. He was crying, asking the officer. He had his hands up, like 'Why you keep shooting me?'"

Savini's voiceover: "Somehow he was able to keep running despite the bullet wounds and made it into this house." An image of a blue frame house with a white door. "You're looking inside where we found rooms covered in blood," Savini explains as we're shown several fast cuts of camera footage spotlighting smears of red on white walls. "According to his family, police tore the house apart, opened up several walls looking for weapons [shots of broken drywall]. His mom confirms pictures posted on social media of a man holding weapons [still image of Allen in a sideways baseball cap holding a rifle and handgun] are pictures of her son."

"Yeah, I think so," Allen says on camera as Savini shows her his cell phone.

"So he's got two guns in the picture," Savini says. She nods her head. "What is that image saying to the public?" he asks, his tone urgent and demanding, voicing the question he assumes is top of mind for the viewers at home. Though I hadn't been wondering that at all, I was now engaged in the expectation of an answer, activated in the process of passing judgement on the woman.

Allen's mother looks away for a second as she continues to nod and the camera zooms closer to her face. "It says [inaudible]. Be careful of him, yes."

The interview abruptly cuts to a different moment in the conversation, perhaps shot slightly earlier. "But there are no working guns, nothing even inside, no bolts, no nothing, no screws, no nothing," Allen's mother says before the video cuts to Savini for the final word: "Earlier in the day, COPA, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, released a statement saying the shooting appears to be justified, but then later released another statement saying anyone, any potential eyewitness to the shooting is being urged to contact them with any information."

By 11 PM the local newscasts had left a loose and impressionistic narrative of what had gone down in Chicago in the prior 24 hours: a police shooting of a Black man whose own mother says that he's dangerous, followed by social media misinformation, followed by looting by Black people in the city's premiere shopping districts, followed by mass deployment of police, followed by anger and frustration for shopkeepers, followed by volunteer clean-up efforts by white people. If one wanted to parse out who the "good guys" and "bad guys" were in this story, it wasn't difficult. The coverage left little opportunity for any more nuanced analysis. Nor did it leave one's brain ready to engage in it anyway. At the end of the day I felt fried, agitated, and overwhelmed.

The next day I wanted to rewatch some of the newscasts, to double-check my notes and make sure I didn't miss or misunderstand any of the reporting. This proved nearly impossible. The full newscasts weren't archived on the local news stations' websites or YouTube channels. All that was available were snippets of some of the reporters' segments and edited footage of officials' press conferences. Those clips on their own couldn't reproduce the experience of watching the stream of the news broadcast on live television. The banter between anchors and reporters was often edited out.

Most of the journalists who produce local TV news shows are local, many with a long history of valuable breaking news and investigative reporting. But they don't control the format of these shows, which ultimately belong to the owners of the stations. All of Chicago's local TV news affiliates are owned by publicly traded global megacorporations. These owners aren't accountable to local consumers or communities but to their shareholders. Their primary goal is to be profitable by attracting maximum viewers to their channels. In a time when discussions about accountability and bias in journalism have reached into every corner of the media, local TV news is the same as it ever was: fast-paced, salacious, exciting, and superficial, a spectacle always implying easy answers and leaving overstimulated brains to connect disparate dots. It's tough to discuss or implement accountability in a format of journalism that lives only in the fleeting moments of a live broadcast. When there is no archive, the only impressions left are the first ones the station bosses decide to give us.  v

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