Eliminate the Negatives

Herald editors nix a photo-essay about girl gangs. Was it not a good story? Or was it not good news?

Beth Keiser left Miami last week because she couldn't tell you a story. After working for five months on a project about the lives of suburban Broward gang girls, the Miami Herald staff photographer quit her job when the paper's senior editors killed her piece.

No one at the Herald questioned the dramatic effect of Keiser's photos. But a compelling story, it appeared, wasn't enough. According to Keiser, the problem voiced by executive-level editors was that the piece was just more bad news. "Without saying it, the implication is, 'We want happy stories,'" says Keiser, who left Miami this past week for a new post with the Associated Press in Chicago. "That is the feeling [among the editorial staff] at the Herald."

Locally, the argument about the value of "happy news" has been most noisily broached by TV stations, such as Miami's WCIX-TV (Channel 6), which pledges family-sensitive newscasts, and WSVN-TV (Channel 7), which pours on the gore. A similar but quieter battle is being fought in executive editorial suites of newspapers nationwide.

"I think newspapers need to tell the uncomfortable truth, but they also need to serve as a beacon for what's possible in the society," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg. Clark and others believe media outlets should approach the news with sensitivity to readers' feelings and with an eye toward solving the community's problems, not merely reporting them. "What you may be seeing at the Herald and other papers is a struggle to figure out where the new path is," Clark theorizes.

In August Herald staffers questioned whether heightened sensitivity to the paper's readers was getting in the way of facts. Executive editor Doug Clifton consented to disguise a rape as an "assault" in a story after the unnamed victim's husband, a federal judge, pleaded through his son-in-law that neighbors already knew of the attack and his wife would be traumatized if they understood it to be rape. (The debate was chronicled in the August 18 issue of New Times, in a story entitled "The Compassionate Omission.")

In Keiser's case, the issue involved whether Herald readers should see a story at all. This past January, in the best tradition of enterprise journalism, Keiser had decided to find out why young girls from well-to-do families were turning to violence. With the encouragement of her Broward bureau editors, she spent two months befriending a fourteen-year-old female member of a Sunrise chapter of the International Posse. She was rewarded not only with the confidence of the gang members but also with the trust of the parents who were fighting to understand and protect their children.

At first glance, Keiser noted, the gang possessed none of the attributes of its inner-city counterparts. It was a veritable United Nations of male and female junior gangsters, counting among its membership Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, and Haitians, as well as pasty-faced white kids, many of whom lived in homes that fronted the golf courses of West Broward. In its activities, though, the Posse more than lived up to the gang stereotype. A core group of eight -- sometimes expanding to fifteen, counting hangers-on -- was led by two convicted felons, one of them a murderer. The girls, some of them as young as thirteen, accompanied the older boys when they took part in drive-by shootings, burglaries, and robberies. Keiser was shocked by the combination of violence and control the male members exerted over girls who were barely adolescents. The normal teenage dating ritual had mutated, she says, to the point where the girls accepted the boys' rapes and beatings as an element of gang membership.

By March Broward bureau editors, working with assistant features editor Lynn Medford downtown, had enough enthusiasm about the story to assign a reporter, staff writer Curtis Morgan. In singling out the young girls from privileged homes, and one girl in particular, Keiser, Morgan, and the editors figured they had hit upon a different gang saga. "We felt it was a perfect picture window into the life," says Morgan. Pressing ahead through the spring, Keiser was encouraged when she learned that a Broward grand jury had opened an investigation of suburban gang activity and had interviewed two of the gang chapter's members. That investigation, coupled with the fact that the Herald was covering a significant number of other incidents involving young girls and violent acts, pegged her story to current news events -- and made it all the more compelling.

In June, however, after Keiser had invested five months in the project, Herald managing editor Saundra Keyes spiked it. Keiser's editors had known from the outset that her piece raised troubling legal issues -- namely, the central role played by minors -- and also carried with it the possibility that younger readers might perceive the gang lifestyle as glamorous. But all along, she and her editors say, they had been confident it was a good story that ought to be told.

Though reluctant to comment about a matter that has been decided by their superiors, Keiser's supervisors are clearly unhappy that the photographer's -- and their own -- news judgment was second-guessed in this instance. "We all thought it was an opportunity for an intimate look at a troubling subject," says David Walters, director of photography for the Herald's Broward bureau and Keiser's direct supervisor.

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