Lost voices
March/April 1989
Art Director: Christian von Rosenvinge

If you were watching the local news on New Year's Day in Peoria, Illinois, you'd have seen the familiar story about the first baby born in 1989, complete with the usual hospital footage of smiling mother holding baby, in this case a baby girl named Brooke.

But as our story on page 6 points out, Brooke was not Peoria's real New Year's baby. That title rightly belongs to a baby girl named Shatyra Renee, who was born about forty-five minutes earlier in the back of an ambulance to a fourteen‑year‑old black girl who said she hadn't even known she was pregnant.

Reporters at two Peoria TV stations knew about Shatyra but chose to go with Brooke, and while the stations have their excuses, it seems safe to assume that Shatyra's birth struck the wrong note for the upbeat holiday story they were after. And it is a sad story. As told by Terry Bibo‑Baker, the reporter for the Peoria Journal Star who broke the news of Shatyra's birth, the new mother was thrown out of the house by her mother, who is only twenty‑eight herself and already a grandmother.


In ignoring Shatyra the TV stations in Peoria took the easy way out, but they are far from alone. Every day, reporters and editors make conscious and unconscious decisions to ignore or gloss over the lives of millions of African Americans. In January of last year, the Chicago Tribune ran a one‑paragraph story on page six of the second section about a teenage mother who was killed and whose two small children were badly burned in a house fire. But there was much more to tell, and in a piece so rich in detail that it could have appeared in The New Yorker, the weekly Chicago Reader told it: the story of the short life of nineteen‑year‑old Laverne Williams and the grief of her large and close-knit family.

The long, moving piece by Steve Bogira told of a ravaged world contained within a few city blocks: houses without heat, men without jobs, children having children. Laverne's mother had nine children in eleven years, starting at age fourteen, and Laverne and her twin sister both first became pregnant at age thirteen. Laverne was by all accounts a devoted mother who was aware of the dangers of the area. But the odds were against her. Because many people in her neighborhood rely mainly on ovens, stoves, and space heaters to keep warm, fires are so common that she had already lived through two major ones before the one that took her life, just after she handed her children out the window of her blazing bedroom.

It's still possible to live and work in Chicago or any other major American city and not come into contact with poor people ‑ although it's becoming harder and harder. It's also possible to be generally aware of the conditions of life in inner cities today ‑ scandalously high teen pregnancy and infant mortality rates, problems with drugs, housing, the homeless, and education ‑ and yet to be so totally removed from them that they are for all intents and purposes, even to the journalists who write and edit news stories about them, abstractions.

Let's take just one of these problems: black teenage pregnancy. In absolute numbers, many more white teenagers than black become pregnant each year, but the percentage for black teenagers is much higher. The causes of the problem are extremely complicated, but those who work with teenagers say that the ones who have long‑term goals and who believe in themselves and their ability to achieve those goals tend not to get pregnant. The message, however, that many black teenagers get from their surroundings, from society ‑ and from many if not most of society's newspapers and newscasts ‑ is that black life is not very interesting or valuable or newsworthy, that young blacks don't have much of a future, and that the world they live in is irrelevant to mainstream American life.

In 1986, The Washington Post ran a series on teen pregnancy by Leon Dash, a black investigative reporter who moved into a ghetto apartment and lived there for a year to find out from black teens themselves why they have babies.

When Children Want Children, a book by Dash based on the series, has just been published, and it should remind us of the premise behind Dash's work, still rare in daily journalism: it is worth whatever time and effort it takes to penetrate communities that are as foreign to most reporters and editors as, say, a third world country.

One of the saddest scenes in Dash's series is one in which a twenty‑two‑year‑old man recalls the day he learned that he had passed sixth grade. He rushed home to tell his mother and found her comforting his sister, who had just learned that she had failed sixth grade‑for the second time. Instead of praising him, his mother said to the girl, "Don't worry, Theresa. Charlie will fail, too.'

Charlie told Leon Dash angrily that the incident killed his interest in school. He failed the seventh and‑eighth grades and dropped out when he was sixteen. At twenty‑two, when Dash interviewed him, he had fathered one child. Theresa did not get pregnant until she was almost out of her teens, and then only to stop years of taunting from her friends because she was still a virgin. "They looked at a virgin as being something shameful…," she told Dash. "They were the type of people who would always tell what happened if they made it out with a boy or a boy made it out with them. I was the only one they never heard from. They would say, 'You don't know what you're missing.' The more they talked, the more curious I got."

These are voices heard in a context that gives them credence and dignity, but a series like Dash's and the Chicago Reader story are the exceptions. "We [journalists] talk about young black teenagers as if they were objects of our imagination," says Roger Wilkins, the former chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board. "We don't know them, we don't talk to them, we don't know what their aspirations are, their value structures, nothing."

It's much easier when writing about teen pregnancy to report on it from a distance, to cover the controversies ‑ when sex education classes should be started or whether a high‑school clinic should give out condoms and the quick fixes, such as the strategy adopted by a Planned Parenthood program in Denver that was featured in The New York Times in January: paying teen mothers a dollar a day not to get pregnant again.

Another story in this issue, on page 12, describes Gannett's "mainstreaming" policy, a chain‑wide effort to in­clude minorities in all kinds of news and feature stories, not just those about racial issues, and to come up with more positive stories about minority life. Such a policy is important and long overdue. But good news is not enough. A recent Louis Harris survey found that a large majority of whites believe that blacks and whites are treated equally in this country. Who, if not the press, will tell the average American the story of virulent racism, of murderous poverty, of the hopelessness and futurelessness of generation after generation of black children, not in the far‑away townships of South Africa, but here? How can any of it be changed if we don't know the dimensions of the problem? And how can we know the true dimensions of the problem unless we can see people as individuals, hear their words, and know both their pride and their pain?