Youth shootings: All too often, journalists just shrug

Memorial service for Bijan Michael Shoushtari
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Devall

Under different circumstances, an assembly on the second day of the school year would’ve made almost anyone proud. Scores of teens turned out from Hamilton High – one of Los Angeles Unified’s most sought-after music and humanities magnets. Its Yankees football team represented in force, with forest green-and-white jerseys pulled over dress shirts and ties. Adults – parents, boosters, friends and relatives – crammed a modest South LA church to the rafters.

All this might have amused the young man at the center of the event, 18-year-old Bijan Michael Shoushtari, son of an African American mother and an Iranian father, had he been present in more than spirit.

The smiling young man whose prom portrait graced 500 printed programs had been shot to death barely a week before, in an apparent case of mistaken identity. At the time of his memorial service, the suspect was still at large.

The person who pulled the trigger likely saw black, not Persian. The gunman fired from a car that pulled alongside the one Shoushtari occupied with friends on a Saturday night near Crenshaw Boulevard, a popular cruising street.

The crowd at the young man’s memorial mingled constituencies that seldom spend much time together in LA – African Americans and Iranians; teachers, coaches and counselors who work with students from kindergarten through high school; a rainbow of middle-class parents and kids who’d known the Shoushtari family from the feeder schools that direct the luckiest students to Hamilton. By coincidence or intention, many in attendance wore pale brown, the Persian color of mourning that represents dying leaves.

It’s hard to imagine another “homegoing” that would have combined references to Khalil Gibran’s “On Children,” Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” and Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s sermon after the untimely death of his son, Alex, alongside gems from the black sacred music canon including “Goin’ Up Yonder” and “What A Fellowship.”

All these influences shaped Shoushtari’s world and informed much of the coverage about his killing. Sure, the unusual constitutes news. But in an unintended consequence, the tone of stories about this young man conveyed a variation on the kind of comment journalists routinely record when gun violence happens among people in areas they consider safe: “This isn’t supposed to happen here.”

For many of the teen’s white and Asian American schoolmates, Bijan Shoushtari’s killing raised for the first time the kinds of dinner table questions worth asking whenever anyone falls victim to a shooting – like why someone as promising as their friend was vulnerable to a violent death.

That kind of query also challenges news decision-makers to steer clear of the assumption that this kind of shooting is supposed to happen anywhere and to pose necessary questions to ourselves:

  •  Does the culture of newsgathering too easily dismiss so-called routine shootings?
  • At what level do we accept the deaths and maiming of young people?
  • Does that unacknowledged complicity contribute to a culture in which this continues to happen?

Think about the times such questions compelled journalists to act – Barbara Davidson’s depiction of the aftermath of gun violence comes to mind – and resolve to learn from those examples.

The writer is a veteran public radio journalist who lives in Los Angeles. A version of this post appeared in the blog LA Observed.

 

 

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