Live Interview: “Action News” & the Rise of Anti-Black Local “Crime” Reporting — with Layla A. Jones

Citations Needed | June 15, 2022 | Transcript

Citations Needed
28 min readJun 15, 2022
Still from the intro for 6ABC’s Action News, broadcast in the Philadelphia metro area in the early 1970s.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yes. And as always, you can subscribe to us on Patreon. As we said, for those who are not aware, you’ll get over 110 News Briefs, extensive show notes for every episode, our newsletter, and many, many other goodies like what you’re witnessing now. You know, Nike, it just occurred to me, we had talked offline about now that I have a kid I wanted to swear less, and I was going to try to swear less on the show because, you know, you want to set a good example.

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Adam: But then it occurs to me that our slogan has a swear word in it.

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Adam: So I think we have to change it to the history of power, PR and the history of poopoo.

Nima: Caca doodoo.

Adam: I think we’re going to have to make it PG rated now that we’re totally, totally domesticated.

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And yeah, so that is, you know, next level. After five years —

Adam: I think it’s time. All right, without further ado.

Nima: For this Citations Needed live interview we are joined by Layla A. Jones, Layla is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the amazing piece, “Lights. Camera. Crime. How a Philly-born brand of TV news harmed Black America,” and that is one of the very first entries in a special project from the Inquirer examining the roots of systemic racism through institutions founded in Philadelphia. It’s a really amazing series called, “A More Perfect Union,” definitely urge everyone to check it out, and Layla, your piece is really striking and could not possibly align better with what we do on Citations Needed, which is talking about the media and its influence. Just want to kind of set the stage for folks listening. The idea that local news, you know, local nightly news is this thing that kind of people have a routine they, you know, finish out their day, they eat dinner, they’re hanging out with the family, they turn on nightly news, it seems almost like this organic thing that has always existed in the way that we understand it now, but that is so not the case. This is something that was created, there’s a format to it, but this idea that there’s this routine that is kind of shared, you know, something you write very early in your piece is this, quote:

The institution of local broadcast news is a young one, but among the most ubiquitous in the United States. It’s a pair of routines that unfold each night: As Americans gather to wind down their days, the medium has worked to deepen racial tensions and reinforce racial stereotypes about communities of color.

And I think that’s such an amazing framework to start your piece and to start your investigation, and so without further ado, I will shut up, and Adam, please do ask the first question, because we really do want to hear from you because you are the person who knows all the good stuff.

Adam: So yeah, let’s talk about the origins of the genre. 1965, you have the kind of Eyewitness News and then Action News or certainly sounds better than passive news. Talk about the origins of the genre, and specifically how the formula kind of supercharged racist attitudes that were coalescing around the same time in response to uprisings in large cities and reactionary politics to the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s. So let’s start there, if you wouldn’t mind.

Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones: Yeah, sure. Cool. Well, thank you all for having me first of all. If we’re starting with the beginning of Eyewitness News, we go back to a man named Al Primo, who is now 87, living in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, but in 1965, he was like 30, and he was charged with leading Philadelphia’s Channel 3 KYW now owned by CBS. And as he became a news director, he learned that you could have multiple reporters on television without paying them more for their story. So prior to what you said, Nima, the creation of Eyewitness and Action News, news was not anything like it is today. It was just one person, generally an older or middle-aged white man sitting kind of reading —

Nima: Shocking.

Layla A. Jones: (Laughs.) Sitting, kind of reading, radio newsreader format of largely national and international news. Wartime things and things like that.

Nima: Like a Walter Cronkite kind of version.

Layla A. Jones: Exactly, exactly. And that was because it was expensive to pay people, they thought, to appear on television, even to have their handle on TV apparently cost a lot of money. News was not a moneymaker for stations, it actually sometimes lost stations money and they made money on their movies and their television shows. Al Primo changed all that. He monetized local television news, and he also localized it, and he did it all, you know, to earn money. So immediately, the ratings go up at Channel 3 KYW, then owned by ABC, and other ABC affiliates are like, ‘Hey, we want to do this too, we want to know why they’re earning money while they’re getting this and that from the network,’ and that’s kind of how the format took off and proliferated across the country. Obviously it created competition. They wanted eyeballs on the newscast. So five years later, also in Philadelphia, Action News comes along. Action News was interesting, because it was really started by somebody who was a statistician, he wasn’t really a newsmaker, he studied audiences, he figured out what people wanted to see, and he told newsmakers to put that on television, they wanted things super fast, 15-second, 20-second story, no more three-minute pieces that really kind of go a little more in depth, and that is how Action News came to be and it took over and it has, at least in Philadelphia, reigned supreme for decades.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, it’s this amazing thing where, you know, once you realize that it was someone’s vision to create this, you’re like, wait, oh, this was a decision based on, as you just said, based on data, right, based on the audience, what the audience, quote-unquote, “the audience” is going to really lap up, what they’re going to want to see reflected back to them, it also then has influence on advertisers, you know, you even write that in your piece that what we’ve been sort of dancing around, of course, is that the Eyewitness News and Action News format, puts front and center, crime stories, crime, crime, crime, crime, crime, public interest piece about a lemonade stand in the suburbs, crime, crime, crime.

Adam: And a specific version of crime too obviously. Not wage theft or corporate pollution, but a specific genre of crime.

Nima: A specific genre of crime. So actually, we have this clip teed up, there’s this excellent, roughly 10 minute video that accompanies your piece, “Lights. Action. Crime,” you produced with a number of your colleagues at the Inquirer, and there’s a section in it that I’d like to play some audio from that kind of gets into this.

[Begin Clip]

Vernon Odom: Is the daily decisions on what’s going to get covered on the news. It is vastly important to have some people who understand what’s going on out there. Suburbanites, particularly white ones, don’t live in the world that Black or brown people live in in the inner city. They don’t have that perspective and they can tend to easily overlook it when that is not brought up to them regularly.

[End Clip]

Nima: So what that piece speaks to, yes, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, you know, let’s have the news bring all sorts of communities into the living room,’ right? But there’s something at the heart of that that I’d love for you to speak to Layla, which is, it’s not just bringing urban life, city life to the suburbs, but a very specific kind, a very specific version, vision of city life, and especially city life as directly connected to Black and brown communities. Can you talk to us about kind of what you found, through your own reporting, on what that vision was, what was being pumped onto the screens for a primarily white suburban audience outside the city limits of Philly to kind of, ‘Oh, this is what the city means.’

Layla A. Jones: Well, yeah, just to start off, that was the voice from the video of Vernon Odom, who is a pioneering Black reporter who worked at Action News from the ’70s until 2019. And so what happened with this is that it was really multi-layered in my opinion and from what I uncovered with reporting. It started with the desire, the need, the greed to make money. On top of that, the era suggested that only white people were on TV and so to even have one Black reporter on the screen, was a breakthrough but in the back room, it was still what Vernon Odom just said, largely white people making the decisions, and finally, they wanted eyeballs on the newscast and so they were leaning towards sensationalism. And so since you have, you know, a desire to make money, no Black people or people of color in decision making roles and then you’re appealing to a specific kind of audience, you get this conglomeration of issues that create the culture of news that we have today, and so they wanted to attract advertisers and they wanted to attract white suburban audiences so they started doing two things. First, they were broadcasting crime in largely Black and brown communities. I had Larry Kane, a really prominent longtime anchor, tell me it was cheap to cover, it was easy to cover, all people did was tell the cameraman to shoot the blood, shoot the scene, shoot the victims, whatever they got, and it took 20 seconds. That’s what he said to me. And that was the ethos and the drive behind this format. On the flip side of that, what I think was especially detrimental is that the suburbs received a completely different kind of coverage. Because the newsmakers at Action News first, I would argue, and then Eyewitness News as it tried to claw its way back to the top, because they wanted to attract middle-class white suburbanites, they went out of their way to broadcast little fun community events there so that those people felt really seen and they felt like the news was an Eyewitness for them and then it was everywhere for them. They hired videographers specifically for the purpose of going to backyard festivals and charity events in the suburbs. And so what that created, and people say this, one of their arguments against the piece is that, ‘Well, there is crime happening in Black and brown communities.’ Well, there’s crime happening everywhere. But again, the anchor, Larry Kane said, there were some crimes that he didn’t think were important enough because, quote, “They happened everywhere.” So highlighting things that happened in specifically Black and brown communities was, you know, intentional, and it created a lack of balance that has really harmed people of color today.

Larry Kane

Adam: Yeah, because there’s this line in the movie Nightcrawler, which is sort of an indictment of, the Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo film, which it’s politics were I thought imperfect, but I did actually think it made a very good point where they talked about creeping crime in white suburban neighborhoods is sort of the mother’s milk of local news. It’s not just about criminality, in general, or even criminality located to Black neighborhoods, but the sort of, the Holy Grail is this crime in what is considered a kind of white area or tourist area and this idea of creeping crime creates this moral panic, and one thing you write about is that the actual data around crime had no relation at all to the actual covering. So when people say, ‘Well, crime does happen in Black communities,’ and you say, well, then why is it when crime dropped precipitously in the ’90s into the 2000s and 2010s, two things happened, the percent coverage of crime and local news didn’t really change much and the evidence of that is that poll after poll after poll after poll every year, something we’ve talked about in the show, shows that people think crime is up from the previous year. So even from 1995 to 2020 when crime plummeted, every single poll from 1989 on said that people thought it was up and this is largely a product of the local sort of Action News format, which is basically pumped directly into the veins of scared white suburbanites. So it’s not reflecting reality, because there’s always an underlying reality to a lot of this stuff, right? I mean, it’s not like it’s made up out of whole cloth, but obviously editorial choices are made about what we cover and what we don’t cover and that has with it certain politics, and this kind of this sort of cheeky, like, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is or we just did for the ratings or that’s where it’s from,’ I’m sort of curious in your talking to people who kind of developed this as a genre, which I know has gotten slightly more progressive over time, it’s not as bad as it was in say 1975, and I think it’s important to make that distinction, but when you talk to people who sort of developed this format and really kind of pander to and drove this kind of reactionary politics in the ’70s, specifically white flight, which I know predates it, but I do think there was a bit of a feedback loop, what do they say? How do they sort of rationalize it? I assume they kind of hide behind the ultimate turn your brain off justification of ‘Oh, it was just the ratings,’ right? This is sort of what Rupert Murdoch always says. He says, ‘Oh, it’s just the ratings.’ And it’s like, yeah, that’s true to an extent but what are the other factors that are going on? I do think even the part where you mentioned how the advertisers wanted middle class, white consumers, kind of bakes the racism into the business model. So I want you to talk about how they defend their decisions, do they feel any kind of moral responsibility for this kind of development? Or is it just one of these, ‘Eh, it was the business, it was the ‘70s.’

Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. There’s so much there. Well, you know, first of all, what you mentioned about the disconnection from reality is super important for, you know, several reasons. Number one, the crime you see on TV a lot, it’s violent, it’s homicide, that is the smallest percent of actual crime happening anywhere, but you wouldn’t know that. If I was an alien coming from outer space, I would think, wow, that’s all that happens in cities is murder. Secondly, you know, I’m from the suburbs, I’m from a suburb in Maryland and so because I live here, you know, I can understand that crime happens where I’m from, but I don’t see that kind of thing on television and so it could allow me to say, well, my neighborhood is so much better than this neighborhood. But what you asked about what newsmakers’ justifications were, it wasn’t even as much about the ratings, and they will say, outwardly, they would get to that eventually, but when I would ask directly, you know, what do you say to the criticism that you all fueled negative opinions about Black and brown communities because of your coverage or crime, they would just say, ‘We just covered the news, this is what was happening, and we just covered what was happening,’ and, you know, I pushed back on that, because study after study, based on research that I spoke to, they addressed these newsmakers, specifically in Philadelphia, and they told them, your formats we’ve proven in a lab, are responsible for increasing attitudes that are harmful toward Black people, it increases white people’s attitudes that Black people are criminals, it increases the likelihood that people would support policies that fosters mass incarceration, like longer incarceration periods, even higher likelihood to increase death penalty, you know, they were presented with these findings and that was, at least one that I know it was in the ’90s, and so 30 years later, I’m asking you, what responsibility do you feel about this? And, you know, they responded that it was just the news. But one person in particular did say this far beyond that, you know, 30 years later, you just have to focus on moving forward.

Adam: Well, that’s convenient. Well, because I mean, I’m not, you know, without being too sanctimonious about it, it does seem like when people place the burden, the moral burden on the market, or the news, it absolves them of any responsibility as editorial newsmakers, and as you note, you can empirically show, as researchers have, that the news wasn’t some organic product of reality, it wasn’t that they were just holding a mirror to society, there were deliberate editorial choices made with deliberate policy outcomes that were invariably going to happen based on those editorial choices.

Layla A. Jones: Well, yeah. And if it was reality, Black and brown communities that do have higher rates of certain kinds of crimes also have positive things happening there, too. They have backyard festivals, and they have block parties and charity events. But that lack of balance under the veil of objectivity, that’s not objective. It’s subjective that you would even choose which stories to cover in which communities.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the idea of holding up a mirror, it depends on where you point the mirror, right, what is being reflected back, and what and what is outside of that, in terms of how you’re framing this. I mean, you’ve noted today, and also in your piece, you know, there’s the Kerner Commission, there’s the 1979 Department of Justice Report, you know, much more recent examples as well of, you know, the influence that media, especially news media, has on the perceptions of their audiences, and of course, when the audience is primarily white and suburban, it does all of these, you know, very, very sinister things, you know, in between, as I kind of touched on earlier, and as you have in your piece Layla, you write, quote, “Between the scenes of desperation, lawlessness, and urban Chaos, ads featuring white families sold cars, bank loans, household cleaning supplies, and pizza dinners.”

Adam: Right. You’re selling middle class-ness.

Nima: Exactly, which then gets Adam to the whole like creeping-ness, right? So if it’s, you kind of point the camera at a dangerous Black neighborhood, and you do a very quick piece, and then you show that, ‘Oh, but what is the urban life like, what are your concerns?’ It’s not those concerns, and then there’s that holy grail of reporting where it’s like, oh, is there a town that’s kind of closer to the suburbs that’s seeing something dangerous or violent? Because then it’s even more sinister and what are the only solutions? Obviously, all the more cops. But something I’d love for you to touch on, Layla, is the idea that these quick pieces, you know, sometimes 20 seconds, sometimes 11 minutes, whatever, but they’re still really short, they put forward this, you know, story, they tell a story, but then that story is never revisited, right? It’s on on a Tuesday night, never heard from again, but the people who are part of that story are living with the consequences of that and sometimes the follow up that never comes tells a very different story of what, you know, was reported in that very quick piece. Can you talk about kind of how the, you know, communities where the cameras are focused on are affected by these reports, and how this model makes no room for any kind of follow-up revisiting actually telling a much longer story than just that single one, sensational one.

Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. Thanks so much for that question because the piece, “Lights. Camera. Crime,” it opens up with a story about one of these individuals, a Black man who lived in a at the time diverse neighborhood, and whose family was the victim of a racist attack, literally, they were called n-words before he was stabbed, and so he talks about how he felt that a week’s worth of coverage from that incident felt good to him, it felt sufficient, he felt like news tried to tell his story but then he released to me a few details that he felt were never followed up on. His father and brother were arrested, he never knew why. The young man who he said stabbed him, he said, was convicted of ethnic intimidation and not attempted murder. He never knew why and so there were these really huge questions that failed to be answered in that snapshot, whether it was a 22-second story, like you said, two minutes, or even a week’s worth of stories. That’s not sufficient when, you know, someone almost lost their life. But I want to say that it’s multilayered, again, there are reporters who gave me feedback, television reporters on this story today, Black people who work in the media industry and who appear on camera who said they are still trying to change that format, but they’re just kind of cogs in the wheel, and since it’s about making money, and since it’s about ratings, the higher-ups have an agenda, and what I’ve said a lot that I want to reiterate is that I don’t believe from my reporting that Al Primo and Bob Feldman and the white man who made these formats in the ’60s and ’70s said, ‘I don’t like Black people, I don’t like Hispanic people, I want to portray them negatively, and I want white people to be afraid of them,’ but I think that a part of racism in this country in general, and this format specifically, is the disregard of Black people. You ignore what they say and we are often just collateral damage. Intent is never enough when the impact is what’s actually harming Black and brown people. Another thing you mentioned about the commercials that I wanted to talk about was that our research, something that didn’t make it in, a bunch of people worked on this, not just me, and our researcher, Brenda Holland, found that there were increased advertisements for security systems too at this time. So alongside white suburban families getting pizza or buying new cars, there were ads that were saying, ‘Make sure you get some cameras and security systems for your home, while this crime may creep into your white picket fence community.’

Adam: Yeah, because I think even something to get away with murder, you know, Action News will have, over the course of two years they’ll have 10 stories about a pedestrian being struck at an intersection in a poor neighborhood, right? And they’ll show the bloody body and they’ll have a kind of, but they’ll never do an investigative report about why these communities aren’t given proper sidewalks and lights and the systemic issues are just not part of the genre and when everything is about one-off “discrete” crime, quote-unquote, as opposed to broader systemic critiques, you’re necessarily going to have a kind of moralistic and patronizing vision of quote-unquote “crime,” and that sort of seems like one of the driving factors, everything is just kind of cut off discrete thing and murders are not the product of poverty or social failure or lack of social services, they’re just cultural or whatever, which is going to have its own proxy for eugenics. But I want to talk a little bit about those trying to kind of work their way within the system. You touched on this. You note that there were Black reporters, and to some extent producers, who tried to kind of add a little humanity, if you will, to their communities. I want to play that clip right now and then I want to talk about it real quick.

[Begin Clip]

Trudy Haynes: It was quite obvious we needed to tell our own stories about our own people. They’re part of the American culture and surely had everything happening to them that were happening to anyone else. And so why shouldn’t they be covered? Why shouldn’t their lives also be counted?

Vernon Odom: Sometimes, some given days the only Black people you’d see on TV were criminals or ballplayers, you know? I covered hard breaking news from crime to Three Mile Island. My philosophy was that I always worked hard to be balanced and give, in many cases, a Black perspective.

Vernon Odom: Sensational hit, New Attitudes. I’m Vernon Odom, join me this Saturday night at 7:30 on Visions.

[End Clip]

Adam: So talk about these reforms. Obviously, they have their limits, because at the end of the day certain people own certain things and certain people don’t own them, but talk about those efforts, what kind of inroads were made, and what you found in your interviews and your research.

Trudy Haynes reports on the weather for WXYZ-TV, 1960s.

Layla A. Jones: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for playing that. That was starting off it was Miss Trudy Haynes who is 95 and still hosts a show on YouTube on her YouTube channel. So, Trudy Haynes, she was hired in 1965 at the onset of Eyewitness News. Al Primo brought her on because one of the things he found in his audience surveys and research was that there was this gap in what he called “minority,” but I would prefer, you know, Black or people of color, on television and their audiences, especially in Philadelphia, a majority Black and brown city wanted that. And so in her work, she talked about how she always found the color in the audience, how she always sought to bring the Black perspective. Vernon Odom too, the show you showed at the end is called Visions, it was a public affairs program that he took on and hosted for years, especially through the ’80s, and so there were always attempts by Black people at these companies to bring context and color to what was largely a white world. Even when it came to covering crime, Vernon said he always tried to explain, there’s poverty here, there’s lack of education because of systemic failures at government level. But when I asked Miss Trudy, you know, do you feel like what you did made institutional change? She said, ‘I couldn’t say that.’ She said, ‘I just did my best to stay there as long as I could,’ and I think feedback that I hear from Black and brown creators at these stations now kind of confirms that it is much of the same. While I think one of y’all mentioned that there are some changes being made, but I think there’s still a lot more that needs to be done, we can still turn on the TV right now — what time is it? 2:38 here on the east coast, whatever — you turn it on at 6pm and you’re going to see crime lead the show nine times out of ten, and so while there have always been attempts to right the ship, I think that it’s institutionalized now, this whole series is about institutions, and so changing that type of bureaucracy is very, very difficult.

Adam: Yeah because so much of it is about kind of preconceived narratives. There’s this whole recall effort against Chesa Boudin, the reformed prosecutor in San Francisco, which I write about, I occasionally will defend him in the pages of the Chronicle and have unleashed the most rabid weirdos in the world, and you tell someone, okay, well, Jacksonville, Florida has a murder rate three times that of San Francisco, and that’s the same population and has a Republican mayor and a Republican police chief and a Republican prosecutor and has much more strict, severe laws, and they just, they don’t listen, because there’s a narrative, which is weak prosecutors create more quote-unquote “crime.” Because right now we’re in this kind of reactionary moment to the George Floyd protest, and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s kind of taken hold.

Nima: And especially in liberal cities.

Adam: Well, especially in liberal cities, which have all unleashed their inner Charles Bronson, and it doesn’t seem like no matter how many times you bang your head against the wall and try to show them this crime statistics data, it just doesn’t sort of seem to matter because there’s a kind of narrative in people’s heads and one of the reasons is, is because of, you know, local news in San Francisco had a couple of viral clips of people stealing stuff from Walgreens that had this sort of visceral feeling that, ‘Oh, Walgreens is Bedlam,’ this and that and it’s this idea that kind of these sensationalist one-off cases are curated in a very specific way to create a certain narrative, because you’ll bring it up and they say, ‘Oh, what are you trying to say there’s no crime?’ And it’s like, no, of course, people steal shit from Walgreens in San Francisco, like, obviously, if you’re there for 10 minutes you’ll see it. But the reality is if you actually look at the crime stats it is on par with even neighboring Sacramento, which also has a conservative prosecutor, but it doesn’t fit a particular narrative, and so the news keeps feeding that narrative over and over again. This is obviously not a very original point but it seems like once you sort of see what goes viral, because local news now is all about Facebook traffic and getting people angry in the Facebook comments, and you see that if it confirms to a narrative which is far-left, radical, Black Lives Matter, politicians have gone too far, and this is leading to this erosion of society. It doesn’t matter how many examples you show of conservative led states and cities that have higher crime rates, it just fits into a narrative and that’s reflected back even today in local media. So I want to talk about the kind of present tense a little bit because the same fundamental incentives are still there, which is the monetization of white anger without sounding too much — I don’t know, I don’t want to be too much like, ‘I’m one of the good ones, trust me,’ — but like there’s this kind of white anger element to it that seems highly, highly monetized and viral, and that still informs, from our perspective, local news, which is why we talk about local news a lot on the show. So getting out of Philadelphia a little bit, do you think the fundamental economics are the same?

Layla A. Jones: You know, what I was thinking of when you were talking is something that wasn’t touched on in the piece but has been talked about a lot for the last few years, which is coverage of the opioid epidemic, and I think that that shows what happens when news changes its own narrative, and so we talk about the monetization of white anger but one of the researchers I talked to said, ‘Well, have audiences really ever been shown anything different? How do you know that you can’t make money by doing other things?’

Adam: Right.

Layla A. Jones: And so the flip side of that is, when Black and brown people weren’t involved, or were perceived as being less involved during the opioid epidemic, which is ongoing and has been affecting several families, you see a flip toward the criminalization of drug use to drug use as a public health issue. That’s something that has now become enshrined in coverage and we use people first language, even when sometimes people who have been addicted to drugs don’t use that kind of language, we use the language because we want to humanize them to our audiences, which are white suburbanites, who we understand might not know what’s going on here, and so I think that that’s a roundabout way to say that race is a really specific driver, in my opinion, of this format and of the penchant towards monetizing white anger because when similar problems that affect swaths of people and a variety of races took off in the news, we saw an intentional shift in its coverage and that’s something that we still haven’t seen, I mean, now we kind of hear gun violence being called a public health issue sometimes, but nothing like we saw what can happen when newsmakers are intentional about how they cover vulnerable people and communities.

Nima: Yeah, I love that you brought that up, this idea that there is an example, there are examples of doing this differently, and so the choice to continue to perpetuate this model, this format is just that, it is a choice. You know, Adam and I on the show have previously talked about how crack was reported on in the ’80s and early ’90s, you know, and have shown like a Time magazine cover that, you know, says like, “Crack Kids” in this kind of kindergarten font, and you know, like, ‘Their mothers used drugs, and now they’re paying the price,’ and it shows just like a sad kid, and juxtaposing that against a much more recent Time magazine cover that has a black and white image, doesn’t show anyone’s face just shows an arm with a needle, you know, going into it and it says, “The Opioid Diaries,” in like a serif font, it’s much more concerned, it’s much more official, it’s a diary, it’s about you know, personal —

Adam: I like that even the font choice is racist.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. Totally, right? And so speaking exactly to what you’re saying, Layla, this idea that this isn’t just, ‘Hey, that’s news, that’s the way it is, you point the camera at the thing, and that’s what it is,’ you know, and ‘Hey, if it bleeds, it leads, whatever,’ it’s that no, there are these choices, there is the ability to, you know, I mean, even to get kind of wonky about it, like changing style guides, you can have people first language embedded into the methods by which people report and edit and produce news, and you know, we’ve seen that change over time, in certain ways. Maybe instead of saying, “racially charged,” just say, “racist.”

Adam: So can you discuss a little bit, we typically like to end on a quote-unquote “positive” note, which is to say, because people here, you know, complain and whine for an hour, they’re like, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ So let’s talk about that, talk about sort of ways in which academics, scholars, activists, journalists themselves, think there can be interventions to maybe create better practices with an understanding that, again, there are limits to that, but what what kind of reforms do you think are useful in your research and talking to people who’ve been talking about this for 40 years?

Layla A. Jones: Yeah, literally. Well, first of all, experts and researchers said similar things to what you said, which is that crime can’t be covered as episodic. It needs to be covered as systemic and we need to point to the causes and then infuse few solutions oriented journalism. What are the solutions that the government needs to explore or anyone? Additionally, there are people who are definitely already doing things right now and have been for decades, organizations that are investing in hyperlocal and grassroots news gathering is something that I think is helping to shape Philadelphia locally. One of them is the Germantown Info Hub and one called Resolve Philly, and what they do is plug into the legacy in mainstream mass media systems, including the television stations when they want to tap in with them, and they teach them different ways to standardize how you cover certain communities, different ways to build community connection. Actually, some of my colleagues were at a workshop that was talking about crime coverage, they were happy to see a lot of television journalists were there and they also said that they discussed this piece, that they played the video, and that there was buy in from TV reporters to learn how to better cover communities of color and crime. And so I think that there is a spirit for it right now. I think, another major change that has to continue happening, and has improved since the ’60s and ’70s, is having Black and brown decision makers, Black, Hispanic and other people of color decision makers inside of those newsrooms, not just on television, because again, the people on television usually have kind of the least, the least amount of power in these systems. So I think those are a few things that are happening and that can happen to continue to improve things. But also an acknowledgement, like of that Time cover, Time needs to acknowledge, and other other entities need to acknowledge that harm and really be intentional about equity moving forward.

Nima: So Layla, before we let you go, what are you now working on? Where can people follow your work? What should they be paying attention to? Where should they follow you? Because this piece you did for the Inquirer is fantastic and I’m sure you have more in the works.

Layla A. Jones: Well, thank you. Yes, well it was a bunch of us, my editors, the videographer, Carrie, and Brenda, the researcher, but we’re also, again, as you mentioned at the beginning, this is an ongoing series. So the next piece that I’m working on is about medicine. Philadelphia is home of the first hospital, first med school. So I’m going to be focusing on that and that should be coming out sometime in the next month or two. To follow along, definitely subscribe to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s newsletter, it is, I’m sure you can sign up anywhere there. Me personally, I can be followed on Twitter @bae_lay, and I think that’ll be it.

Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. We have been speaking with Layla A. Jones, reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the piece, among others, “Lights. Camera. Crime,” which is one of the first entries in the A More Perfect Union series by the Inquirer. Layla, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed and giving us a look behind the kind of anchorman trope that, as you said, you know, I mean, started in Philly and spread across the country to 200 plus stations. It’s been great to talk to you today.

Layla A. Jones: Thank you so much, it was fun.

Nima: So that will do it for this live interview from Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through, all your support through Patreon is so appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded. Also feel free to go pick up some new merch through Bonfire. But thanks again for listening. We will be back very shortly, soon, with new full length episodes. But until then, thanks again. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter is by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed live interview was recorded with a virtual audience on Friday, May 20, 2022 and released on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.