Chicago strives to shed murder image in media
CHICAGO — NPR. NBC News. The BBC. The Guardian. The Sydney Morning Herald.
All have reported on Chicago recently. None told positive stories.
The city has worked hard to burnish its image as a beautiful, global capital with a diverse economy and robust culture, trying to banish the stereotype of Chicago as home to factories and Al Capone.
Now, almost overnight, Chicago's image is in danger of being recast as the media focus on the city's homicide numbers, playing off the slaying of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton and President Obama's call for a reappraisal of gun laws.
“In Chicago, more civilians are killed from gun violence than American soldiers on the battlefields of Afghanistan,” a news anchor from Britain's Channel 4 told viewers last week as he stood on a South Side street. He introduced a special report about guns in America by saying that in Chicago, “the gun is the law.”
The reality is far more complex, starting with the fact that gun violence is not a new problem, nor is it spreading to areas most frequently visited by tourists, conventioneers and business travelers.
But experts say the relationship between image and reality isn't always in sync, and perceptions can shift suddenly based on the power of messaging and the momentum of the moment. That could make it more difficult for Chicago to promote itself.
“You can lose a reputation far more quickly than it takes to earn it in the first place,” said Clarke Caywood, a professor of public relations at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. “We stand on the precipice of being Murder City.”
Homicides were up 16 percent last year, at 506, giving Chicago one of the highest such rates among major U.S. cities. New York City, with about three times the population, saw slayings drop to 414, its lowest total in 50 years. So far this year, Chicago's homicide count has continued to climb, but its worst year for homicides was in 1974, with 974 killed.
The media focus on Chicago has taken no toll on the business climate, according to city officials. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office described the problem as an isolated gang issue taking place in specific neighborhoods.
In discussions with business executives contemplating a move to Chicago, “this topic does not come up,” said Deputy Mayor Steven Koch. “We are in a really good place as far as economic growth.”
But observers say that because changing perceptions can't necessarily be quantified, it would be difficult to declare at what point Chicago's reputation might flip from positive to negative.
“It's hard to measure who doesn't call you, who decides not to have a meeting in one city and go to another,” said Courtney Ashley, co-owner of About Tours, a Glen Ellyn-based tour organizer.
By the time data show a trend, “you're already into a negative spiral,” she said.