“16 Shots,” WBEZ’s new podcast with the Chicago Tribune about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, launched on August 29. That day, the Tribune also published a story from a selective and controlled 40-minute interview with Jason Van Dyke, the police officer charged with murdering McDonald, who was later threatened with contempt for speaking with the press.
“The interview came in the night before we were putting the podcast out,” says “16 Shots” host Jenn White, who previously helmed her station’s “Making Obama” and “Making Oprah” podcasts. “It was a very late night, early morning for some people.”
ICYMI: Journalism’s strained relationship with police
“16 Shots,” which combines investigative reporting with breaking news updates, is charged with this sort of tension. Along with episodes that dive into the deep history between police and communities of color in Chicago, the journalists behind “16 Shots” discuss developments tied to Van Dyke’s ongoing trial, which began September 5. They make space for breaking news—Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement that he would not seek re-election got its own episode—and provide by-the-minute fact checks. After airing audio of Van Dyke’s interview with the Tribune, White quickly countered Van Dyke’s claim that he had no history of misconduct complaints.
“One of the reasons I love working in audio is because it gives you a chance to break up the story,” said White. “In the same way as you would if you’re having a conversation with someone and they say something, you can respond, ‘Wait wait wait. What does that mean?’”
As the Van Dyke lawsuit draws local and national press, I talked with White about the challenges of representing McDonald and Van Dyke’s stories, the power of journalistic collaboration, and the ramifications of the trial for Chicago and the country. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
We were able get some insight into the defense strategy we were likely to see in the trial. What questions are they not allowing him to answer?
Why was “16 Shots” WBEZ’s next project?
When we were coming up on the trial, it seemed like a good opportunity to remind people about the circumstances around the shooting because unfortunately we tend to have short attention spans. We had the feeling it would probably draw national attention because it’s not often police officers in this country go to trial for murder. We wanted to present a more complete picture of what happened, not just the night of the shooting but the months and years that followed.
The first episode starts with a 2015 meeting between Mayor Emanuel and black pastors around maintaining peace following the release of the dashcam footage. Why begin there?
It’s compelling tape, and I think it sets the stakes right from the very beginning. You have a mayor calling black pastors to City Hall to say, You have to help fix this and if you don’t, don’t come to us asking for anything. I think by setting the stakes, we’re able to go back and say, “For a mayor to get to this point, what happened?”
That episode sparked controversy for using audio from a recent Chicago Tribune interview with Van Dyke, whose legal team heavily monitored his responses. What went into the decision to include the interview?
We came down to a couple of things. One is, Jason Van Dyke is a central person in this story, and the audio was going to be out there. Were we able to provide context to some of his statements that you may not hear in other places? The answer was yes.
The second thing was we were able get some insight into the defense strategy we were likely to see in the trial. What questions are they not allowing him to answer? You have this moment when he starts to talk about how he was feeling the night of the shooting and the attorney jumps in and cuts him off. That gives us some indication that his emotional state is probably going to come up in the trial.
How has collaboration with the Chicago Tribune aided “16 Shots?”
Nobody really works in one medium anymore. If you’re a print person who needs to figure out how to expand into audio or video, what are the partnerships you can form to bring your expertise to them, and vice versa? We are fortunate at WBEZ that we have been able to expand and continue to expand our newsroom. But if other newsrooms are shrinking, how do we bolster the work they’re doing and use their expertise to bolster the work we’re doing? When it’s all said and done, it is our job to serve the community. If we are falling down on the job because we’re just competing with one another then we’re not doing our best work.
What’s the importance of diving into the legal system as part of “16 Shots?”
A challenge is really moving beyond the legal terminology and actually explaining what something means. Our criminal justice system is so shrouded in mystery for a lot of people. If you’ve never had an interaction with the criminal justice system, there’s just so much you don’t know. You don’t know what your rights are. If we are able to pull back the veil on the criminal justice system to say, “Wait a second. This is really how things work,” I think voters, citizens are able to make more informed decisions about what kind of policies they’re supporting.
How do you avoid the storytelling binary of pitting those who believe Van Dyke is guilty against those who don’t?
People who have a history or believe there is systemic abuse by police against black communities are also concerned about gun violence in their communities. That’s not a binary. It’s not an either/or. You don’t have to have a lack of accountability for police officers in order to lower crime rates A lot of it speaks to having people who have been in the field doing this reporting for a long time and are able to bring the context that they’ve reported on and witnessed themselves.
How are you preparing for the potential trial outcomes?
Our plan from the very beginning was to tell the story of what happened the night of the shooting, what happened afterward, provide the trial coverage, and then talk about what happens after a verdict. That’s with the assumption we end up with a verdict.
It’s hard to figure out exactly how different communities in the city are going to respond depending on the verdict. We’re also in the middle of a mayoral election, and a number of people who are running for mayor have ties to the police. There’s a lot that will be left to be told after the verdict, whatever that verdict is. We’re also waiting for a finalized consent decree [concerning police department reform]. What happens in Chicago, with the Chicago Police Department and with some of the changes we’ve seen since the shooting of Laquan McDonald, those ripples are going to linger longer.
Right now how it plays, your guess is as good as mine. But I’ll say, too, working in audio, we’re fortunate. It makes us nimble. We can put things out as they happen.Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, In These Times, JSTOR Daily, and Paper Magazine, among others.