The story of 16 year-old Chicago student Derrion Albert being beaten to death outside his high school became a national story after video surfaced of the beating. The video is horrifying even in today’s violence-soaked media landscape. Fox Chicago was the first outlet to acquire the footage and news director Carol Fowler explains why it was their journalistic duty to air it.
BOB GARFIELD: Last month, 16-year-old Chicago student Derrion Albert was beaten to death outside his high school. Even in a city ravaged by violence it was a big story, but it got a whole lot bigger when video surfaced of the beating.
[CROWD HUBBUB/SHOUTS] It shows a scene of chaos, a fight between kids from two different neighborhoods that quickly and senselessly escalated to a point where Albert, a sophomore honor student, was struck and killed with a piece of lumber. The video is horrifying. And even in today’s violence-soaked media climate, it’s something of a shock that it was actually aired by local TV stations and cable news networks. The first outlet to show the footage was FOX Chicago, which acquired it after one of its reporters met the older brother of a student who recorded the video while picking up his younger sister from school. The station bought it for what it says is its standard fee of 250 dollars. FOX Chicago news director Carol Fowler says paying for news footage is fairly routine but airing this video was anything but.
CAROL FOWLER: I've got to tell you as news director it certainly gave me pause. My first thought was, how can we possibly put this on TV? But one thing I have learned over the years is that one or two managers shouldn't be making a decision this important. You include the whole newsroom, to the degree you can, in the discussion. And that’s literally what we did. Darlene herself, our reporter, actually made a very good point. There’s a lot of lip service paid to, well, these kids have to walk through unbelievable circumstances to get to and from school. This shows exactly what it is like. We had a journalistic obligation to air it. How could you not? We just had to.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there’s a couple of other wrinkles in the acquisition of this video. One is that the guy who shot this thing was kind of mercenary about it. He at least told you that he had gone to other stations and refused to do business –
CAROL FOWLER: One, one other, one other station, yeah, mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD: - but refused to do business with them because they wanted to pay him by check, instead of 250 dollars hard cash.
CAROL FOWLER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: And also the fact that during the course of the two minutes in which this young man –
CAROL FOWLER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - was beaten to death, no apparent attempt to dial 911, to notify the police -
CAROL FOWLER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - to do anything to intervene.
CAROL FOWLER: That bothered me too, until I talked to the reporter. There was a man who shot the video. He’s an older brother. The explanation I received was that, look, I have a sister in this school. All I hear about is that it’s chaos. There are factions of kids fighting with each other inside and outside of school. We drive upon this fight going on, and I want to videotape it. And it was important to him to show people the reality of what’s going on. To the degree to which he was satisfied that other people were calling the police or other people were calling 911, Bob, I can't be certain of that. You can argue, certainly, did he do the right thing. And I would argue that he did, because we have the video. It’s a tragic situation, but it certainly opened a lot of eyes to the conditions that these kids are faced with daily.
BOB GARFIELD: For the residents of those neighborhoods, I can see two potential reactions. One is, thank you for shedding some light on the conditions -
CAROL FOWLER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - in which our teenagers have to just risk their lives to walk to and from school. And another is how dare you be so reductionist as to portray us as barbarians and monsters. Don't you realize that things are so much more complicated? I know you got some of the former. Did you get any of the latter?
CAROL FOWLER: No. No. Every voice was, thank you, thank you, thank you. We're living in hell. You know, as I look back on all of this, I just think about how would this child, Derrion Albert’s death been reported and viewed had there not been a photographer with a camera? He would just be another statistic. And only after this incident, you know, largely people watching the video, I think, has really the school system, the politicians in the city - even the White House is taking notice of what is going on.
BOB GARFIELD: So you knew what happened. You knew you had video. You look at it. What is your reaction?
CAROL FOWLER: [SIGH/PAUSE] The video that I watched and was watched by many internally was the raw video. News people are about as cynical and hard-edged as they come. There were people in our newsroom who said, I can't watch this, I have to turn my head. You like to feel like inside every person is a respect for humanity, and to see other young people once he, you know, was knocked to the ground, then kick and spit on him was sobering in a way that I can't even describe. Just sadness - that was my overwhelming feeling.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Carol, thank you very much for joining us.
CAROL FOWLER: Thank you, Bob. It’s a pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Carol Fowler is news director at FOX Chicago.