Homicide coverage is about people, not just stats

Stories about Hadiya Pendleton's death should be a guide for journalists in future crime reporting

On Friday, President Obama spoke in Chicago as a part of his post-State of the Union tour, pitching, among many things, a call to Congress to bring up votes aimed at stemming gun violence.

The speech took place at a school two miles from his own home and just slightly further away from a park where 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead in January, a week after performing at Obama’s inauguration. As Obama’s speeches often do, this one sought to make the issue relatable, rather than to discuss specific policy. “Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique,” Obama said. “It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.”

Media stories of Hadiya’s death have done something similar, turning what’s usually statistics-based coverage into a narrative about a specific person. Even within Chicago, where everyone seems aware of the killing within city limits, there is a disconnect of impact. The wealthier North Side simply doesn’t experience the violence that occurs in the poorer, mostly minority South and West sides. Sure, everyone understands that high murder rates aren’t good, but unless it somehow connects with their lives, the engagement’s not quite there.

But in the days that followed her shooting, coverage of gun violence in Chicago has focused on the day-to-day of Hadiya’s case—the shooting to the funeral to the arrest to looking at how the White House would respond. Journalists should work to continue this sort of coverage, bringing out the human side to future homicide statistics. By making relatability a mission, journalists would be able to bring more of the public into the debate about what can be done to curb the shootings.

The media’s current default reporting focuses on statistics, rather than individuals. There was a lot of coverage of Chicago’s spike in murders last year, both locally and on a wider scale, especially as the number of homicides crept past the symbolic number of 500. By the end of 2012, the Chicago Police Department counted 506 homicides within city limits, the first time it crossed the threshold of 500 since 2008.

Much of the analysis that considered that rise was quite illuminating. For example, on January 29, the same day as Hadiya’s murder, The New York Times published a story analyzing the fact that, despite the city’s strict laws against guns, Chicago is flush with them because firearms pour in from neighboring communities and beyond.

But as great as some of that coverage was, human connections often were lacking. But news media has grasped the significance of Hadiya’s death, which both displayed how unremarkable and remarkable Chicago’s violence can be. From the day of her death through the funeral and even this weekend, family, friends, and supporters have regularly reminded people how relatable Hadiya is—a popular high school sophomore with a sweet smile. Such coverage has been coupled with a look at the systemic issues surrounding her death, including the gang that police say was behind the murder and the no-snitch code that makes convictions difficult.

I believe media should make an effort to invest resources to cover every victim of every murder with the care and attention given to Hadiya Pendleton. While this is easy to dismiss as an expensive pipe dream, there’s already been a move by several media outlets in Chicago to pursue it. DNAinfo.com Chicago, a new neighborhood news site for which I’m a frequent breaking news contributor, documented all the homicides in Chicago in 2012, often offering photos and stories to highlight each death. (Full disclosure: I did a large chunk of the reporting for the project.) And last month, the Sun-Times announced a partnership with Homicide Watch, the Washington DC-based murder-tracking site, to launch a similar site this winter. WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, has a project tracking the homicides of young people that included a piece about Antonio Fenner, a well-liked 16 year old who was killed three days before Hadiya, but whose death received far less attention than did the pretty high school sophomore who died near the Obamas’ home.

Every effort should be made to explore or challenge presupposed narratives that can leave most murders as categorized as “gang-related” both with respect to the perpetrator and the victim. Though the evidence is clear that most of Chicago’s murders occur in the city’s poorest—and therefore most gang-fertile—neighborhoods, that doesn’t necessarily say anything specific about the victim. Covering murder victims for the last several months for DNAinfo.com, I’ve talked to families of victims that were as genuinely innocent as Hadiya was as well as those of victims who were hardened gangbangers. Most of the victims I write about fell somewhere in between.

By recognizing that there is a spectrum of victims, coverage of murder rates becomes more powerful and nuanced. No, not every victim will be as compelling as Hadiya or the six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is DNAinfo.com Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism. Tags: , ,