You’d be forgiven, if your primary source for local news in Helena was the Independent Record, if you believed that our sleepy little town was infested with non-stop violence and crime. Day after day, we’re treated to a parade of mug shots and police reports that exploitatively monetize human misery, bad choices, and misfortune. We never learn the stories that led to the conditions leading to these arrests, we rarely learn the outcome of the judicial process after the arrests, and we almost never learn about what we can do as a community to improve conditions to reduce the crime we do have, but we do learn, day after day, just which of our neighbors has had a run-in with law enforcement.
There’s immeasurable loss that accompanies this non-stop promotion of crime. It reduces the bonds of trust and heightens fears among us. These stories encourage people to demand more aggressive policing of minor crimes and increased sentences that not only destroy lives but impoverish our community. Every dime spent on another night in jail is a dime not spent improving our schools or fixing our roads and ratcheting up public fear by non-stop publication of crime reports, prominently highlighted on a paper’s web page to encourage clicks, only increases the pressure to punish more and to understand less.
In their Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman assert that the modern media trains citizens to observe but not see. A monthly rogues’ gallery of mug shots certainly helps us observe human misfortune, but it does nothing to help us see the causes of crime or solutions we haven’t considered. We might see pain and desperation, but we certainly don’t understand it better or empathize any more when these stories are presented as an opportunity to sit in judgment over people who have not yet been, and may never be, convicted of any crime.
It’s despair pornography, and it debases our community.
There’s another cost, too, that is perhaps a bit more measurable. While printing public domain mug shots and summarizing police reports that don’t include the perspective of those accused or even those potentially victimized can’t be too time-consuming, it does seem to cut into time to report on significant achievement in our community, particularly our schools.
On May 5, eleven days ago, two Helena High students, Emma Sihler and Devin Seyler, were named U.S. Presidential Scholars by the Department of Education. They’re two incredible kids—who would probably be quite embarrassed to learn that they’re being talked about here—but their achievement deserves recognition from the local paper of record. 3.6 million students will graduate from high school this year in the United States, and Emma and Devin were among 161 students recognized for this award, one of the most prestigious awards a student can receive.
A third student in the local area, Tyler Noyes, who attended Broadwater High, was Montana’s third representative. Each of these students individually achieved something extraordinary; that all three attend schools less than thirty miles apart is even more so.
In other news, Helena High was named one of the top high schools in the country (and fourth in the state) by US News and World Report in their annual rankings of American high schools. Helena High was honored in the rankings largely because of its success on Advanced Placement tests, with 27% of its students taking an exam, achieving an 88% pass rate, a number almost 30% higher than the national pass rate for AP classes. Only six schools in all classifications were given silver recognition by US News.
Neither of these stories has been printed in the local paper of record.
It’s all news worth reading, and not just because students have had tremendous success nor even because of the assault on public education taking place in our state. It’s worth reading—and in a timely fashion—because the academic success of young people in our community is far more important to Helena’s fabric and identity than incomplete, exploitative coverage of crime that creates and perpetuates the notion that our community is something it just is not. Of course, the paper of record should cover crimes, but not at the expense of covering things we can all be proud of or the truth about the kind of place in which we live.
Two updates: I am told, via Twitter, that the recipients of the Presidential will be profiled in the graduation addition, presumably in two weeks. In other news, a student who violated the dress code by wearing a Confederate hoodie in Missoula got 1,000 words and statewide coverage (including at the IR) within 24 hours of his suspension.
Note: The author of this piece teaches at Helena High and he’s damn proud of his school and these students.