Reporter goes beyond numbers to explore mental health toll of Chicago violence

IN LATE DECEMBER AND EARLY JANUARY, as many national news outlets released and reported on year-end murder and shooting statistics, PBS NewsHour reporter Ryan Holmes felt troubled by how journalists covered the loss of life in some of Chicago’s most vulnerable communities. Holmes, 25, told his editors he wanted to put a human face on the violence. He called community groups that support survivors of violence and families who have lost loved ones. He wanted to hear about the experience of Chicagoans when they are confronted with so much violence and death.

That reporting “kind of led me down a totally different path,” Holmes tells CJR. “The focus of the story ended up shifting from just ‘putting a human face on the results of violence in Chicago’ to a much more personal story of how these specific incidents end up having real tolls on the mental health of folks all across the city.”

In late August, PBS Newshour published the resulting story, “Chicago’s gun violence crisis is also a mental health crisis.” Holmes’ story depicts how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and other forms of mental illness impact predominantly black Chicago communities—like Englewood, North Lawndale, and other communities on the South and West Sides—that also suffer from high rates of gun violence and a lack of mental health resources.

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Throughout, Holmes carefully considers Chicago’s strained mental health treatment resources alongside its epidemic of gun violence, and skirts sensationalism and shock. During his reporting, he spoke with young men who were shot and survived, traumatized families, and those community groups and faith-based organizations that are often the first points of contact for families after traumatic events, providing emotional and financial support while helping foster community dialogues around violence prevention.

Although Holmes reported the story from DC, that’s hard to tell just from reading his piece. Holmes centers his story on the community, rather than politicians or police leaders or academics. Here’s how it begins:

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Kimberly Greer can’t sleep. Almost every night for the better part of four years, she has woken up in the dark. The numbers on her clock flash 3:30 a.m.

Greer rouses at this hour most nights, haunted by the faces of her son, Ricky, her daughter, Ryann, and her nephew, Jordan—three of the hundreds of Chicago’s victims of gun violence. One survived. Two did not. But they all come back in the hours she can’t sleep.

Holmes’ story is bookended by Greer’s narrative. “I wanted to lay out her story as best I could to try to show that to the reader,” says Holmes, “and have the reader have that similar experience of empathy, and to draw them in and focus on the issue.”

Holmes lays out the numbers from 2016: more than 4,000 shootings, and 762 people killed, mostly on the city’s South and West Sides. He provides crucial context for the story’s mental health angle: Chicago has closed six mental health clinics since 2009; the state cut nearly $114 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012; and, despite expanded mental health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, service providers working with low income clients are being stretched too thin.

The gun violence and the mental health issues that accompany it have affected churches, neighborhoods, schools, single families and generations of families. The enormity of that, the burden it puts on people he spoke to, really comes through

Holmes, who obtained data from the Chicago Department of Public Health and organizations like NAMI Chicago, says it was important “to find numbers that showed the sort of correlation and overlap between shooting incidents and behavioral health.”  Some of those numbers revealed that neighborhoods with the most shootings tend to have the most behavioral health hospitalizations for things like depression, anxiety, and self medication.

The story is structured in a way that gives a sense of walking through different parts of Chicago, and understanding how different players fit together, says Erica Hendry, Holmes’ editor.

“The gun violence and the mental health issues that accompany it have affected churches, neighborhoods, schools, single families and generations of families,” she tells CJR in an email. “The enormity of that, the burden it puts on people he spoke to, really comes through. It also touched on the human side of what happens when budget deals—which we’re reading about often this time of year—go wrong, or don’t happen at all.”

Holmes worried about gaining people’s trust as a white man calling from the nation’s capital who wasn’t on the ground. ‘I made sure I was reporting the feelings and the realities of the neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago.’

Hendry describes many newsrooms as “quick to report on isolated moments of violence but slow to really analyze or understand their impact.” That tension, along with comments made by President Donald Trump about the city’s violence, “was part of our motivation for reporting this story.”

“I think part of what makes NewsHour’s coverage unique is that it strives to show the human side of news and numbers, and it follows on breaking news or news trends with deeper context,” writes Hendry. “Both of those things were true here.”

Holmes was raised in Burlingame, California, and studied journalism at Northwestern University, located in Evanston, a northern suburb of Chicago. His time in the Chicago area gave Holmes an affinity for the city that he took with him to DC, where he has worked for NewsHour for roughly a year.

But, Holmes admits, he worried about gaining people’s trust as a white man calling from the nation’s capital who wasn’t on the ground.

“I’m an outsider to the community, and I can’t purport to understand the acute stressors in Auburn Gresham or North Lawndale or the neighborhoods where there is the biggest number of shootings,” Holmes says. “So that was a huge, huge concern to me, that I made sure I was reporting the feelings and the realities of the neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago.”

Holmes says that these areas, where most people of color live in Chicago, are marginalized, and often don’t get a fair shake from reporters, who sometimes neglect or misrepresent their stories. Holmes urged other journalists to go beyond the numbers when they report about violence in Chicago.

“It gets you to a more accurate truth,” he says, “and that’s what we as journalists are in the business of doing.”

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Adeshina Emmanuel is a Chicago-based journalist focused on race, class, inequality, social problems, and solutions who has been published in The New York Times, Ebony, Chicago Magazine, and by ATTN.com. He's a former reporter at the Chicago Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, and DNAinfo Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Public_Ade.