CHICAGO, IL — Peter Nickeas mans the Chicago Tribune’s graveyard shift. Witnessing Chicago’s “violence and mayhem”—as his Twitter bio puts it—is what he does, four nights a week.
On most nights, Nickeas is constantly on the move. He chases violence from one crime scene to another in the belief that “the best work of journalism comes when we are outside, asking questions and talking to people, observing and witnessing things,” he says.
That’s why, on May 29, Nickeas drove to the scene of a fatal shooting near Marquette Park on the city’s Southwest Side. What awaited him was the aftermath of another act of violence: A 14-year-old boy had taken three bullets to his chest.
Nickeas went on to work the scene. He found and interviewed the boy’s brother. He took notes as the relatives were let past the police tape to identify the body. He stuck around long enough to meet the neighbors.
This is what he observed:
Christine Barakat was yelling. Her eyes were wide, and her hands were shaking as she forced her 13-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew to look down the block at their dead friend.
The 13-year-old made a weak attempt to break away and go back inside. But his aunt standing nearby grabbed him by the arm and also forced him to look.
“I want y’all to see firsthand. Look it,” Christine Barakat said.
“This is what y’all want? The hell with this … ’cause they gonna have to scrape my m——-f——— ass off the floor if that’s you, do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
It’s gripping, well-observed stuff—and it reflects a sense of purpose among news organizations here to expand their coverage on the city’s violence problem, and to do so with attention to the human stories behind the grim stats. That commitment is reflected in efforts like the Tribune’s “Chicago Under the Gun” project and the “Homicide Watch Chicago” initiative at the rival Chicago Sun-Times.
But when I reached out to a group of about 15 journalists and educators in Chicago to assess how the city’s violence is being covered, the consensus was that, while there’s work to be proud of, there’s also room for improvement. The level of soul-searching and the details of diagnosis among the group varied. But most agreed that there’s too much “scoreboard” reporting—represented by numbing headlines like, “82 shot, 14 fatally.”
Then there’s the need for coverage that explores the roots of the violence, and that examines the effectiveness of local authorities’ response. That sort of work is being done—but it’s not, yet, as institutionalized as efforts to catalogue the violence and memorialize the victims.
Finally, there’s the question of balance, emphasis and focus: how to capture the genuine urgency of the situation, and the tragedy of each loss of life, without presenting a distorted view of the most affected communities.
“As long as we have reporting that gives the impression to everyone that poor, black folks in these communities don’t value life, it just adds to their sense of isolation,” says Stephen Franklin, the community media project director at the McCormick Foundation-funded Community Media Workshop, where he led the “We Are Not Alone” campaign to promote stories about solution-based anti-violence efforts.
Natalie Moore, the South Side Bureau reporter for the Chicago Public Radio, says journalists here should re-evaluate their coverage by asking the basic question: Why do we cover murders?
“What do we want people to know? Are we just trying to tell them to avoid the neighborhoods with many homicides?” Moore asks. “I’m personally struggling with it. I don’t know what the purpose is.”
At the big papers, a focus on ‘humanizing’ victims
How big is Chicago’s homicide problem, actually? As in much of the country, the homicide rate has fallen dramatically here from 1990s and early-2000s levels. Even in 2012, when the number of homicides spiked to more than 500—the most in the nation—the “murder capital” moniker was imprecise; many smaller cities had higher rates. Calls to send in the National Guard to deal with “Chiraq” blur that reality.
At the same time, the homicide rate in Chicago has fallen more slowly, and remains substantially higher, than in other big cities. The first half of 2014 produced 182 homicides—a pace of one per day—and this summer’s Fourth of July weekend was the bloodiest in recent memory. The city is less deadly than it used to be, but not as safe as it might be. And the violence, unsurprisingly, is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.
It’s against this backdrop that the city’s two big newspapers have been developing new storytelling platforms that focus on “humanizing” the victims, families and communities.