Chicago reporters on covering the city’s violence during the Trump era

The Chicago Reporter's Susan Smith Richardson, left, with the Chicago Sun-Times' Jeff Mayes. Photo by Samantha Stahl.

DRESSED IN A CUBS JACKET, his hair slightly damp from the rain, Jeff Mayes rushed into a third-floor reading room at the Columbia College Chicago Library last week. Mayes, who runs the breaking news desk at the Chicago Sun-Times and is the paper’s Homicide Watch editor, was one of four participants in “Covering Trump’s Vision of Chicago,” a forum about reporting on the city’s rising gun violence. Mayes apologized for being late; he had been on deadline with news of a quadruple murder in the city’s South Shore neighborhood that afternoon.

By the end of that night, seven people, including a pregnant woman, died in three separate shootings in South Shore. Those shootings provided a sobering backdrop for the evening’s conversation, which featured Mayes, Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton, WBEZ reporter Chip Mitchell, and University of Chicago Crime Lab research manager Kimberley Smith.

‘The problems are much deeper rooted than just people running around the city shooting. There’s reason those people are out there shooting. There’s reasons people are getting shot.’

In late January, President Donald Trump infamously tweeted that he was going to “send in the feds” if Chicago did not reduce its “carnage.” Trump has continued to raise the issue during his first months in office. Last week, he grilled Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police leader at a meeting in Washington.

We’re just an example of what he sees are just the numbers,” Mayes said at the forum, which was sponsored by Columbia Journalism Review and the Chicago Reporter. “I don’t think he has any idea of what’s really happening in the city as to the cause of this violence. The problems are much deeper rooted than just people running around the city shooting. There’s reason those people are out there shooting. There’s reasons people are getting shot.”

The forum participants did not set out to refute Trump or to pit him against a city that overwhelmingly went for his Democratic opponent in the 2016 election. Rather, they explored the responsibilities that journalists have to cover and make sense of the violence outside of the political frame the president has placed around it.

Last year, 764 people were killed in Chicago, up from 485 in 2015. The violence was highly concentrated: five of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods accounted for nearly half of the city’s increase in 2016, according to a gun violence report by the University of Chicago Urban Labs. “Chicago objectively had a terrible 2016,” said Smith, the Crime Lab researcher.

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However, the city still posted a lower homicide rate than Detroit, St. Louis or New Orleans. “It’s not a problem unique to Chicago,” Smith said. “Violence is occurring in many large US cities.”

The discussion, moderated by Reporter publisher and editor Susan Smith Richardson, is part of an ongoing collaboration between CJR and local nonprofit news organizations to engage readers and viewers on local issues and how they’re reported. Participants are provided with a selection of news stories, and then meet to discuss them with community members. The reading list for the Chicago event included a story by the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich about a 10-year-old boy’s recovery from a gunshot wound and a column by Glanton about a two-year-old who was shot to death.

Although the discussion started with Richardson getting reactions to Trump’s January tweet, the panelists spent the majority of the hour-long conversation reflecting on the reasons behind the city’s increased murder rate and how it might be curbed. Glanton said Trump hasn’t offered a solution.

“My mission has been as a columnist to make people aware of the fact that he’s not offering any real help,” she said. “People have opened the door to him. He doesn’t want to talk about services.”

Like Glanton, Mitchell said the underlying causes of the violence need to be addressed.

“On the one hand, Chicago does need a lot of attention, and I’m not sure what Trump has in mind is actually dealing with the problems,” he said.

“The underlying causes have to do with poverty and segregation and joblessness, especially among young men, especially among those young African-American men. I don’t see any signs that’s what he has in mind. It could be also that he doesn’t have anything in mind. He’s appealing to a political base. That political base that he has is not in Chicago. It’s mainly white working class people, and there could be some appeal to them of thinking of Chicago in terms of urban mayhem, and there’s a heavy race component to that. Maybe that’s the only thing going on here.”

More than half of the homicide victims in the city last year were African-American men between the ages of 15 and 34—a group that represents only four percent of the city’s population—according to the Urban Labs report. To be young and black, then, is to be at disproportionate risk in Chicago.

Glanton talked about a column she recently wrote about a 15-year-old boy growing up in North Lawndale, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. “The reason I did this piece, and it took me a really long time to do it, I wanted people to understand why young men feel as though they need to carry a gun,” she said. “In order to do that you have to understand the circumstances of how he lived, how he relates to his friends, how he feels about his aunt and this whole idea of, ‘I am the protector of my family.’ I really wanted to humanize him in a way people wouldn’t just turn it off.”

Glanton said the Tribune tries to balance daily stories tallying the homicides in the city with more reflective pieces. “The reason we do those daily stories about the numbers is because that’s what people want to read, and they get a lot of clicks. But we have a responsibility to go behind those numbers, and that’s what I try to do.”

Mayes said it’s often hard to write about violence in the city because there are real people behind the statistics who are in pain. He talks frequently with family members who have lost loved ones for the Homicide Watch page, a community-based website that tries to chronicle every death in the city.

“I had a woman call me,” Mayes said. “She was an elderly woman. She had witnessed a shooting on her street corner, and she was literally afraid to walk outside her door.” Mayes continued:

“I didn’t really know what to tell her. She didn’t want her name in the paper. She didn’t want me to say anything about it. She just wanted somebody to know what was going on.”

Richardson asked the journalists to discuss how they might help to address the problem. “Are we in the business of also covering solutions?” Richardson asked.

Glanton said she doesn’t know the answers. “I don’t know how to solve this problem,” she said. “I don’t think the mayor does. I don’t think anyone does. But what I encourage people to do is to voice and to talk about it.” In a recent column, Glanton pushed the city to hold community meetings in all 50 wards so people could talk about what can be done. “I think the people who live in the neighborhoods have the best ideas how to solve these problems,” she said.

Smith noted that many of the programs in the city that aim to reduce violence focus on boys in high school, but miss people caught up in violence as they grow older. “A large share of policy response will need to focus beyond high school outreach or after-school programs,” she says. “That is something we are still trying to flush out.”

Mitchell said it’s also important to get at why violence is increasing. “Even if we have a hunch about some of these things, the solutions are not necessarily the exact opposite of those causes. It may be that, to deal with the sudden increase, it’s things like street mediation. Jobs. Why aren’t there the resources?”

Mayes said journalists shouldn’t look to civic leaders for the solutions. “I really don’t think the people at City Hall have the right answers,” he said.

Mayes brought up the allocation of police resources and recalled that, during the summer of 2015, tourists in downtown Chicago were targeted for robbery. For a time, you could not walk in the downtown tourist areas “without bumping into a police officer on every single corner,” Mayes said.

“But there can be a series of murders—just this afternoon there were five murders on 75th Street—you aren’t going to see a cop on every corner on 75th Street. It’s just not going to happen. The police are utilized where the city thinks the money is. That’s just a fact. No one is going to say that. The police are not going to tell you that.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.