The public has now seen the troubling video of a Chicago police officer shooting and killing Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy who lived in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.
For Chicagoans, especially for those in Black and Brown communities, the shooting feels like another likely injustice in a long line of cases in which police have killed young Black people — the police killing and subsequent cover-up of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald offers a high-profile example.
But just seven days after the murder of the child, popular Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote that the public should “wait before turning slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo into a martyr.” Zorn, who is White, criticized references to Adam as a “baby” and wrote “it’s not too early to stop romanticizing and infantilizing 13-year-olds” before listing crimes of teens the same age from around the country.
Many journalists, local and otherwise, immediately condemned the piece — especially for its lack of compassion for the young victim and the community still mourning his loss. “What about Adam’s humanity?” we asked.
“Columns are supposed to add thought-provoking ideas to the table, not strip the humanity of children of color,” one journalist told me.
“What is staggering about that column, among many things, is the utter lack of humanity,” another one said.
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote that the public should “wait before turning slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo into a martyr.”
As a journalism professor, a reporter, and a Black woman from Chicago, I was both hurt and ashamed at the implication that we need to step back and “but what about…?” the situation. To me, it doesn’t matter: You shouldn’t have to be a perfect kid or be a martyr for your humanity to matter.
My Northwestern colleague Steven Thrasher canceled his subscription to the paper and in a letter to Tribune leaders wrote: “I will not, under any circumstances, support journalism which calls for the debasement of marginalized people; which tries to justify the summary state execution of children; and which argues against my humanity.” (Thrasher told me he has not received a response.)
Some were quick to remind audiences that Zorn previously wrote that White teen Kyle Rittenhouse, then a 17-year-old, “was probably terrified” when he shot and killed two protesters and injured another in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake last summer.
Acts of racism don’t have to be intentional to cause harm, and this difference in empathy — whether intended or not — was evident.
“It is not a grace or a benefit of the doubt that he gave to Adam Toledo,” a Chicago journalist told me, who stressed that the column is just one example of a much larger issue. “This is ingrained in our society, in our culture, in this country that we see White young people as more innocent and more their age and you see Black and Brown kids as older than they are and their innocence is not presumed, and this is a bias that we’ve seen time and time again and that we’ve been living with. And every time we get another example of it, it just continues to be that much more frustrating.”
Study after study has shown this is true. Black and Hispanic/Latinx teens were about twice as likely to be considered more violent than their White counterparts, a 2018 study says.
Zorn later released another column to explain himself, one that feels much more like a platform for the racist letters of support he received than an apology, one that tried to give credibility to a column that should not have been written in the first place.
But sadly, it’s a common cycle: A police officer or wannabe vigilante kills a Black or Brown child, major media publications look for victim wrongdoing, and a debate ensues as the journalists who write about said wrongdoing argue that digging into the lives of these victims is warranted, a way to tell “both sides.”
Yet, we know that, historically, legacy media organizations have been infamous for vilifying Black and Brown teens: Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was killed, and pictures of him in gold teeth and posing with his middle finger up were published; unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was referred to as “no angel,” and media organizations stressed that he allegedly robbed a store before police shot and killed him; 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was called violent and dangerous, and his history of arrests for drugs and petty crimes were highlighted after he was shot 16 times.
And although these stereotypes are in traditional news reporting, it is also exacerbated in opinion pieces and editorials. They hurt the very foundation of the journalism that the authors and editors of these words purport to uplift.
“What the leaders of the Tribune and other major publications don’t seem to understand or care about is that these ‘opinions’ hurt; they are harmful,” said a local journalist who noted editors don’t always subject opinion writing to the same scrutiny as news reporting. “They think of these words as disembodied launching points for a larger discussion. They don’t acknowledge these pieces hurt people, they hurt communities, and they hurt people in their own newsrooms.”
And for journalists of color, the column strikes a familiar chord. As we work to build trust in media with the most vulnerable communities, an opinion piece like this can derail it. When we go back into neighborhoods to report and interview residents after a column like this, why would anyone want to confide in us?
“Personally, as a human and as a Chicagoan, I thought that the column was out of touch and hurtful to a lot of people,” one journalist of color said. “And as a journalist, I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really throwing some of your colleagues under a bus.’”
As journalists, what we write about victims as their communities mourn says a lot about who and what our industry values. With our platform comes a responsibility — a responsibility that should extend to knowing when we should just shut up, when we should wait for more information, or when we should pass the mic to someone else who is better equipped to give an opinion.
When we jump to conclusions just because we want to “present another side,” frankly, it’s just bad journalism.
And like one journalist said: “The writer makes a point to say we didn’t have all the facts, but apparently that didn’t stop him and his editors from saying, ‘We know enough.’”