Brownsville: Crime Is Down, but You Wouldn’t Know It From the Papers

Residents on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn are often reluctant to speak with reporters. Introductions are met with widened eyes and furrowed brows, and usually end in a polite but guarded, “No, thank you.” Some just keep walking or interrupt with a question of their own—“What do you want?”

It’s easy to take personally, but their reactions aren’t surprising. Brownsville residents are used to reporters and TV crews descending on their neighborhood, which has been dubbed the murder capital of New York City, most often to cover grisly acts of violence. Some have even accused the news media of perpetuating a narrative that focuses narrowly on Brownsville’s challenges, despite improvements after the turn of the century.

And they have a point. In 2016, more than half—54 percent—of all stories that mention the neighborhood in the city’s three major newspapers are crime stories. Moreover, the percent of crime-related stories that mention Brownsville, a predominantly poor, black neighborhood, has increased in recent years—even as major felony crimes in the precinct continued to decline.

An intersection in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Angie Wang/NYCityLens)

Such coverage has repercussions. Deron Johnston, deputy director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, said the neighborhood’s negative reputation has a huge impact on young residents’ identity. Johnston helps people apply for jobs through the organization, which aims to prevent crime and incarceration.

“I’ve had them tell me, ‘No one’s gonna hire me, I’m from Brownsville,’” he said.

Meanwhile, stories that should get coverage often don’t. Consider the RACSteppers, a national championship-winning step team at Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brownsville. Stepping is a percussive dance with African roots that involves using hands, feet, and chants to create a strong rhythm. The team of 8 to 12-year-olds won their second consecutive championship last June, and flew home with a trophy as tall as some of the dancers.

Parents and teachers welcomed them home with excitement and congratulations, but news coverage of their victory consisted of one 185-word brief published on NY1’s website. Dance coach Asha Isaac believes that Brownsville’s bad name can often get in the way.

“That might be the reputation, but that’s not who you are,” she said she tells the girls. “You can go to school, do step, and be champions.”

An analysis spanning from 2000 to 2016 shows that recent news stories about Brownsville focus heavily on crime despite a consistent decline of major felony crimes in the area.

The analysis by NYCityLens uses data compiled by Factiva, a research tool that aggregates content from newspapers and other publications. We counted the number of articles in three daily newspapers—the New York Post, the Daily News, and The New York Times—that mention Brownsville, and also the number of those Brownsville stories that Factiva’s algorithm tags under “crime and legal action,” in order to calculate a percentage of Brownsville coverage that was crime-related. (By restricting the search to New York City, we avoided including results that reference other cities named Brownsville, like the one in Texas.)

Then we compared these figures with the number of major felony crimes in the city’s 73rd Precinct, which covers Brownsville and Ocean Hill, over those same years.

Though the analysis is limited to the data Factiva has collected and categorized, that data does show a stark increase in crime-related coverage by the Daily News between 2014 and 2016, when major felony crimes declined from 1,879 to 1,603. The Times, meanwhile, began to increase its crime coverage in 2012 in line with a small increase in major felony crimes—from 2,135 in 2011 to 2,249 during the following year. But after 2012, the paper continued to focus more on crime through 2016—even as the number of crimes steadily dropped.

Of the three publications, the Daily News led the trio in total crime coverage throughout the newspaper. In 2016, 18 percent of all Daily News stories were crime-related, compared to 6 percent in the Post and 5 percent in the Times. Still, all three publications had higher crime-related percentages when considering only stories that mention Brownsville. The Daily News led with 65 percent of stories that were crime-related, followed by the Post with 40 percent and the Times with 39 percent.

Wendell Jamieson, the metro editor at the Times since 2013, said writing about local crime is an easy way to make readers feel like reporters are in the neighborhoods, but it doesn’t tell the real story. “Crime is a cheap way of covering the city,” he said.

Jamieson said he restructured the Times’ metro coverage in 2016 to back away from coverage of small-time crime as rates throughout the city dipped to an all-time low. He said the newspaper covered almost no murders in 2016 outside of a series—called “Murder in the 4-0”—that examined the lives of those killed in the South Bronx’s 40th precinct.

Last March, the Times ran a piece called “No ‘Inner City’ in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Just Overlooked Strengths” in response to a story that appeared in the Daily News about how the neighborhood is the worst in the borough for children. It was a very different approach from a 2012 Times piece titled “Brownsville, Brooklyn is terrorized by gangs.” (That headline was later adjusted to read “Threat From Gangs Heightens Anxiety in a Brooklyn Neighborhood.”)

Of the three newspapers, the New York Post’s crime coverage seems to most accurately reflect crime trends, although the data still shows—as with the other two dailies—an increase in crime stories between 2012 and 2015 as the number of felony crimes dropped. (The Post also publishes a daily crime blotter—those results were excluded from this analysis, since the blotter’s only mission is to report crime.)

An editor from the Post declined to comment on our findings, and an employee on the Daily News city desk declined to connect NYCityLens with an editor.

A supermarket in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Angie Wang/NYCityLens)

Travis Dixon, a media researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said constant crime coverage of predominantly black neighborhoods reinforces negative stereotypes. Every time readers see a report linking violence to black men, he said, they associate that group with that behavior.

According to Dixon, this concept, called cognitive accessibility, affects people of all races and classes. Stereotypes particularly inform the opinions of those outside the community, who may not have much contact or knowledge of black individuals other than what’s portrayed in media, he said. But they can also be defining for local residents—like self-fulfilling prophecies.

Through his work at the center, Johnston said he has had a first-hand look at how being from Brownsville affects young people’s motivation. One result, he said, is that media presentation can become reality.

“There’s some self-actualizing that happens,” he said. “When young people find themselves in moments of stress, they may live up to that narrative.”

Crime coverage, Dixon said, has become a habit. Structural limitations and financial interests are likely keeping news organizations from breaking that habit and moving away from crime coverage. To keep views high and advertising revenue up, reporters churn out stories that are easy to process. Most readers have a better understanding of murders and rapes than Ponzi schemes and other white collar crimes.

And poor people and people of color disproportionately commit blue collar crimes like robbery or assault, Dixon said, so they’re often in the limelight when it comes to crime coverage in the news.

Television news is less likely to provide contextual information—like trends or significance—for crimes than its print counterparts, Dixon said, because broadcast coverage tends to follow the news as it unfolds. Print news sources can conduct news analyses, consider trends over time, and allow residents to weigh in, he pointed out, while TV coverage of breaking news is often limited to a short sound bite from a police official or grieving relative that often lacks background.

Dixon said reporters should be responsible for having conversations with their editors about whether crime coverage actually reflects crime in the community, and news organizations should aim to provide context for crime trends by acknowledging when it’s on the decline. “Obviously you have to cover crime,” he said. “It’s the overcoverage that’s the problem.”

Johnston said there’s no shortage of good news coming out of Brownsville—the area is home to business corridors with vibrant local shops and budding entrepreneurs. Spreading the sentiment that Brownsville is too dangerous to visit only hurts business owners and longtime residents who are trying to give back to the local economy by sticking around.

Storefronts on Rutland Road in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Angie Wang/NYCityLens)

But in the news industry, there’s a lean toward tougher journalism and away from stories with positive spins that editors deem “fluff pieces.” Dixon said this principle—“if it bleeds, it leads”—also contributes to constant and unrelenting coverage of crime.

Jamieson called the focus on crime an unfortunate trend that surfaces when journalists aren’t creative about finding stories. He acknowledged editors are sometimes guilty of relying on crime stories as an easy way to fill the paper.

“If we’ve given the impression that a neighborhood is more violent than it is, that’s an imperfection of covering urban cities,” he said.

Dixon grew up in South Los Angeles, another neighborhood with a reputation for violence and gang activity. He recalls his church pastor started a community center that offered sports and games to keep kids off the streets, but not a single news organization would cover the story. No one wanted to talk about how a black church opened its doors.

Lloyd Cambridge, an entrepreneur who grew up in Brownsville, said he sometimes feels ashamed when he talks about where he is from. He’s worried that colleagues and coworkers will see him through an inaccurate lens and assume he’s just another violent, black man. “They can’t relate to growing up in Brownsville,” he said. “They only know what they see in the news.”

Cambridge said he hopes to one day create a documentary about successful individuals with roots in Brownsville, to begin to change the outside world’s understanding of the neighborhood and eradicate any shame associated with its name.