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'We're Always Being Treated to the Worst' : Violence-Torn Communities Say They Still Await Media's Coverage of Social Issues

ONE YEAR AFTER THE RIOTS: The city looks to the future. One in an occasional series.

April 26, 1993|GREG BRAXTON and CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the live images of destruction and rage of Los Angeles' deadly civil unrest that flickered across his television last year, Johnnie Cochran Jr. saw hope.

Cochran, a prominent African-American attorney, hoped that the communities torn apart in the disturbance following the Simi Valley trial would rebuild and heal. But he also hoped that the violence would serve as a wake-up call for the local broadcast media to probe into the deeper sociological issues underlying the violence--the poverty, the unemployment, the racial tensions, the hopelessness and despair.

"I thought for sure that now the message had gotten through, that the media had better start paying attention to what was really happening in those communities, instead of just rushing down there when there is a drug bust or drive-by shooting," he said.

News directors at several local television and radio stations seemed to be on the same wavelength as Cochran. Some agreed that they had paid too much attention to violence-oriented breaking news and not enough to exploring the conditions that led to last year's disturbance. Many vowed to change their priorities and devote more time to more positive and analytical stories on the various communities.

So Cochran and other community leaders watched their televisions, turned on their radios and waited. But as the first anniversary of the unrest approaches this week, they say they are still waiting.

Almost all of them have come to the same conclusion: The post-revolution is not being televised or broadcast.

Numerous civic leaders, community activists, educators and prominent business-people from the African-American, Asian-American and Latino communities believe that local television and radio have largely broken their promise to provide more insightful, balanced coverage of urban minority communities in the year since the Los Angeles riots.

"The focus of the broadcast media's coverage has remained narrow and negative," said Cochran, who is representing trucker Reginald O. Denny in the upcoming trial of the three African-American men accused of beating Denny and several other people at the riot flash point of Florence and Normandie.

"With the exception of a few examples, we're always being treated to the worst of the African-American community when we look at television news or listen to the radio," he said.

Other Latino and Asian-American leaders say they also feel the local broadcast media have ignored their communities. For the most part, they said, television and radio have continued to emphasize the more superficial and sensationalistic aspects of life in those areas. The media have also consistently failed or declined to cover stories dealing with positive role models or improvements in those communities, they charged.

Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, said, "I would have to give the broadcast media a mixed review. On the one hand, there has been more coverage of individuals who suffered as a result of the unrest or who were greatly affected by the unrest. But by and large, the depth of the coverage of Asian-American communities has not gotten deeper."

This lack of balanced coverage by the broadcast media, the critics said, is contributing to the continuing alienation and polarization between those urban communities and predominantly Anglo suburbs.

Some broadcasters acknowledge shortcomings. But many news directors, anchors and station managers defend their coverage in the last year, saying they have provided a more comprehensive and balanced portrayal of life in ethnic communities--the problems and the joys. For every positive community-related story that leaders and educators say was missed, TV and radio employees can name an enterprise story on minorities that got on the air.

Pat Harvey, an anchor at KCAL-TV Channel 9, said of the criticism, "This is something I hear all the time. I go into church in the so-called black community; I do a lot of speaking engagements. Wherever I go, there always seems to be this thought that the media is to blame for the emphasis on the negative in the news."

Harvey acknowledges that much of her job each night is delivering bad news. "But I know KCAL does a lot of positive stories," she added. "Lots of our reporters have covered heartwarming stories on people who live in forgotten areas. But for some reason, those stories are not remembered. People remember a story about a robbery or drive-by shooting because crime is so overwhelming. . . . Bad news stays on people's mind more."

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