Independent Journalists Telling Stories of Gang Life, While Risking Their Own

New brand of videographers going into high-crime areas to tell stories of gang life while risking their own

Fort Worth resident Shawn Cotton runs the YouTube channel Say Cheese TV -- regularly visiting high-crime neighborhoods in search of stories about street gangs and gang-affiliated rappers. It's a dangerous job, but one that could be very lucrative.

The 28-year-old quit his $7 per hour job cleaning refrigerators six years ago to document gang life.

Dozens of gangland videographers nationwide, much like Cotton, risk their lives to provide a voice for communities routinely ignored by mainstream media, creating an alternative news genre that Cotton's friend Zack Stoner liked to call "hood CNN" before he was killed in a drive-by shooting last year in Chicago.

Cotton said danger is definitely part of the job -- he now wears a bullet proof vest and carries a weapon while working.

"I wear it for safety reasons. Yo, after my homey ZackTV got killed I kind took in consideration to be more safe when I'm out in poverty areas doing interviews," Cotton said.

Cotton said he gives rappers a chance to change the narrative about life in the "hood," and he provides an unfiltered look at the intersection of life and rap music in the toughest neighborhoods in the country.

Critics said the types of videos produced by Cotton glorify gang violence, but he sticks by his style and feels the rewards outweigh the risks.

"If you are making gangs look cool, you're recruiting more people to join gangs," says Mike Knox, a former Houston gang-unit police officer.

"What Zack provided was a platform where (those on the streets thought), 'I can be myself, I can cuss, I can tell you how I feel ... and it ain't gonna be censored,"' says Rodney Phillips, an ex-gang member who works for Chicago anti-violence groups. "He was showing the unadulterated truth."

Cotton, who travels around the country but considers Texas home, spoke with Stoner about the risks of their work: You could invite the wrath of gangs that believe a report favored hated rivals, or draw the attention of young gang members who might shoot merely out of hopes of gaining higher status in the gang by killing a notable member of the community.

Cotton said he receives multiple death threats a week via social media. One threat came after he reported that a gang member ran from a fight. One message read: "We're going to do you like we did Zack."

Why take such risks? Providing a voice for the community is one motivator. Money is also a big incentive.

YouTube pays a fraction of a penny per video view for ads on YouTube-based sites. Channels like Cotton's, which has over 400,000 subscribers and a million monthly views, can generate over $15,000 a month. Stoner had over 200,000 subscribers.

Stoner understood, as does Cotton, that some degree of danger makes more compelling videos, boosting viewership. With its homicide numbers and depth of hip-hop talent, Chicago is fertile ground for stories.

After what happened to Stoner, Cotton mulled leaving the field of gangland news. But he still likes the work and the money.

"I'm not going to switch careers," Cotton says, "just because I'm scared."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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