It's long been a criticism of local TV news that most of the reports presented from predominantly African American neighborhoods are negative and scary--focused on chalk outlines of dead bodies and yellow police tape--while stories about the law-abiding, hard-working residents of these ZIP codes are largely ignored.
Fox-owned KTTV-TV Channel 11 is trying to balance the equation somewhat with "Straight From the Streets," a weekly segment on the station's morning news program.
Shot and reported by two African Americans, TV neophytes but longtime residents of the neighborhoods they chronicle, this Wednesday feature presents what KTTV news director Jose Rios describes as "positive news" about people and businesses "that don't come from the usual sources, from the wire or the newspaper or things that are in the orbits of the people that work in newsrooms. Stories we wouldn't ever know about and wouldn't otherwise make it on our air."
Keith O'Derek, 34, a native of Gardena, serves as the cameraman. Malik Spellman, 29, who was raised in New York but has lived in Compton for the past 12 years, is the on-camera reporter.
Their pieces, airing at about 8:40 a.m. each Wednesday on "Good Day L.A.," have included stories on a halfway house that attempts to rehabilitate drug addicts, a cafe that serves dinner to the homeless every night, a bicycle racing champion, a cardiologist who has worked in the neighborhood for 25 years, the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper and young men whose hobby it is to build low-rider cars.
"Crime is just a small portion of what goes on in these neighborhoods and, for the most part, that is all you ever see in the media. It has led to the misperception that everyone who lives there, especially the young black males, are thugs and murderers," O'Derek said. "But for the most part, we are all people like everyone else, doing what we can to get by, wanting a house, wanting to raise kids in a neighborhood free of drugs and violence. And that is not how the people in these neighborhoods have ever been represented."
The riots of 1992 increased the need to show another side of this vast population, the duo believes.
"A lot of people had never been exposed to that kind of violence," Spellman said. "So the job we have is deprogramming the people in the Valley and the Westside by saying, 'Hey, everyone who lives in the inner city is not like that. There are doctors and lawyers and journalists too who are never represented.' And this here is to sort of put a Band-Aid on that bad situation."
The riots gave O'Derek, who also runs a music video production company, his first chance to do something about this news imbalance. KNBC-TV Channel 4, figuring a familiar fixture of the neighborhood would have better success getting his friends and neighbors to open up than a traditional reporter, hired him at that time as a one-man band to go into the neighborhoods to document "the pulse of the community." For two years, he said, he brought back tape to the station, but nothing ever made it on the air.
O'Derek left KNBC and showed his work to a producer at KTTV. While she had no use for what he'd previously shot, she embraced the original idea of sending locals into the community to depict it.
Meanwhile, another KTTV producer had met Spellman while working on a piece about a gang truce, and even though he had never worked in television before, she liked his enthusiasm, his honesty and his ability to articulate himself in authentic street language that could nonetheless be understood by suburbanites.
The producers brought the two men together last summer, and they have been searching for stories ever since.
On occasion, their journalistic inexperience shows. While the pieces are obviously features, filled with hip-hop music and the occasional fancy special effect--as opposed to news stories that are obligated to present all sides without bias in a mostly straightforward way--a few have lacked background, balance and that pinch of skepticism that probably would make them even more effective.
One early story, for example, showcased a group of spray-paint graffiti artists who execute their work only after receiving permission from the property owners. The story effectively spotlighted the motivation and talent of these young men, but it barely acknowledged the controversy surrounding graffiti, legal or otherwise, that could have turned a light feature into something more substantive.
"In terms of journalism, some pieces are stronger than others, but that's true of any reporter," news director Rios said. "But that is by design in this effort to democratize the news--to get people who aren't completely polished journalists and let them loose in their area of specialized knowledge so we aren't prisoners here to all the usual ways we hunt for news. Let them learn television as they go. And if we make mistakes, that's OK. We'll learn from them."
The advantages far outweigh the glitches, the experienced professionals say. Spellman and O'Derek, by virtue of their personal experience in the community, find stories and present a point of view that the more seasoned outside reporter wouldn't even know about.
Plus, Spellman said, because he is one of them, the people in these neighborhoods trust him and open up to him.
"On most of these streets, they don't trust the media," Spellman said. "But if I come in with a Ph.D in streetology and say, 'Talk to me, talk slang, I don't care if your bed isn't made, show me your car, show me your baby pictures'--people see that as amazing. 'This is a cool news reporter. He's not corny. He's not Bryant Gumbel. He can identify.' And because of that, I'm going to get a story that you wouldn't get."
But what about the other neighborhoods? About 35% of the local television market is Latino. Where are their "Straight From the Street" reporters?
"Certainly it's a challenge to cover a place as diverse as Los Angeles," Rios said, "but our newscast can't be an hour of 'Straight From Everybody's Street.' This is just a beginning. It's an impossible condition to say, 'If you can't do it for everyone, for every ethnic group, you shouldn't do it for anyone.' Otherwise, why even try?"
"Fox deserves credit because they didn't have to do this," Spellman said. "And what they are doing, I think, is breeding hope. A lot of these kids who see us come into their neighborhoods have never seen a camera, a microphone. They've rarely seen young black men with jobs, if you want to get technical about it.
"They see us with the Fox logo and the camera and microphone and it's like the carnival has come to town. Suddenly the impossible is possible. They come running up to us and saying, 'How can I sign up for a class to learn how to do that?' or 'How can I build that camera right there?' It plants a seed, and when you do that, something beautiful is eventually going to grow."
* In addition to the regular Wednesday appearances on "Good Day L.A.," half-hour compilations of "Straight From the Streets" segments will air June 18 and June 25 at 11:30 a.m. on KTTV-TV Channel 11.