Monday, July 09, 2007


The media's tendency to "sound bite" complex topics does a disservice to subjects and audiences, and hinders understanding of others.

I'm going to start this with an admission. This was remarkably difficult for me to write. Not because there was some deep emotional content for me, or an ambivalence about the subject matter, but because I just couldn't make the words I put on the page march in the formation that I wanted them to. So I'm going to abandon any attempt at eloquence or the art of the essayist, and simply cut to the chase. Let me know how I've done.

Today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a story dealing with the dead-end investigation into the shooting death of Tajahnique Lee, killed when a stray bullet struck her in the face. Despite the fact that she seems to have been in a small crowd of approximately a score of her neighbors, everyone claims to have seen nothing that would help law enforcement secure a conviction, and so the case faltered, and two gang members who were arrested in connection with the shooting were eventually released. While the words "Stop snitching" never appear in the piece, which was reprinted from the New York Times, judging from the P-I's URL for the story,, it seems that it was on someone's mind. I come to this conclusion because we don't routinely refer to everyday witnesses to crimes as "snitches" if they give statements to the police, or testify in court. We call them, well, "witnesses." So seeing "snitch" in the URL stood out for me, and prompted me thinking.

The Stop snitching campaign is a complex social phenomenon within the black community; supporters, researchers and detractors alike all list a number of reasons that are given for people to refuse to cooperate with the police, even if they themselves are the victims of a crime. Some are reminiscent of Omertà, the south Italian idea that it is contemptible to rely on or work with the authorities. Others are pragmatic - why risk yourself by crossing people who are perfectly willing to murder you if you do, if you have no protection? Some are tied up in what is essentially a call for official accountability - don't testify against your own people until the police and other authorities are willing to do the same. There's even the idea that it refers solely to the more common understanding of snitching, where criminals or suspects point the finger at others to get better deals for themselves.

And like many complex ideas, the Stop snitching campaign runs the risk of being boiled down to a single, easy to digest concept, providing a convenient rationale for any instance of potential witnesses to crimes in black neighborhoods declining to speak out or cooperate with authorities when black perpetrators are involved. Outside of the potential to create or perpetuate negative stereotypes, the overbroad application of Stop snitching tends to reinforce the idea that disparate minority communities are parts of singular monocultures, thinking and acting in lockstep from coast to coast; with individual leaders that all members follow, and universal concepts and attitudes that everyone subscribes to.

Given the number of people whose only frame of reference for people of other communities is the media establishment, it's imperative that the news media, which is intended to deal in facts, not allow itself to become sloppy in this manner. If a democracy (or republic, or what have you) really relies on an informed populace for its survival, it's a matter of national survival. But hysterics aside, it's a necessity for unity. Portraying entire groups of people as monolithic "others" isn't the least bit helpful in building the sort of single national community that makes a nation durable. That's something that we've never had in this nation, and when you look at the longevity of more unified cultures and nations, it's hard to deny that it comes in handy.