Terrence McCoy was rummaging through clips when he came across the story of Kimi Reylander.
Reylander, 9, was shot and killed while visiting her great-grandfather’s home in Irondale, Alabama, a small town just east of Birmingham. The culprit? Her brother Jaxon, then 3, who found a loaded handgun in a nearby bedroom and fired it.
Local authorities ruled the February 2016 shooting accidental. Still, a gun was fired and a child was dead. McCoy had found something.
“I had been thinking about how to write about gun violence, and it struck me that so much of the media narrative was focused on these horrific acts of terrorism or mass shootings,” says McCoy, who covers poverty, inequality, and social justice for The Washington Post. “But when you look at the whole of gun violence in America, that’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Instead, McCoy wanted to tell a different story about gun violence, one about a family dealing with a set of events that led to Kimi’s death: A great-grandfather who left his gun unattended, a grandmother who didn’t see it on the dresser, a toddler who reached for the gun, and the little girl who stood in front of him.
McCoy spent weeks in Irondale, interviewing family members, including those in the home or nearby when the shooting occurred. “Everyone, to some degree, felt complicit in what occurred,” McCoy says, “whether or not it was the mother who was thinking, ‘I should’ve just been watching my kids,’ to the [great-]grandfather who left it out, to the grandmother who said, ‘How could I not have seen that gun?’”
The subsequent story ran in December 2016, detailing the family’s struggles to recover from Kimi’s death. There was no lone gunman firing into a crowd, no hail of bullets stemming from a turf battle or domestic altercation that escalated, no political strife leading to a shootout on a baseball field. It was just a mistake. A terrible, tragic mistake. And it gave McCoy pause.
“Gun violence is not unlike a pebble dropping into a pond,” he says. “There is obviously a sudden impact, just because of the sheer act of violence, but it ripples, outward and outward and outward.”
According to a recent Pew survey, nearly half of U.S. adults personally know someone who has been shot—either accidentally or intentionally. Thirty percent of adults say they currently own a gun, with the majority—67 percent— citing protection as the main reason to do so
For many, losing a loved one to gun violence is a traumatizing, heartbreaking loss. It signals the beginning of a long road back to some semblance of normalcy, often with no set timetable for recovery, if ever. It cuts across demographics, geography, and circumstance. It devastates parents and siblings. It leaves communities reeling, and it forces many to search for hard, uncomfortable answers.
But as McCoy mentioned, the conversation has shifted more toward mass shootings in recent years as a number of high-profile incidents have rocked the nation, including a former employee of an Orlando awning factory returning to the site and killing five employees and himself on June 5; a former Alaska National Guardsman opening fire inside Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on January 6, killing five people; a 20-year-old naval station employee stealing a rifle and firing into a department store inside a Burlington, Washington mall on September 23, 2016, killing five people.
Neither mass shootings nor one city’s challenges with violence tell the full story of gun deaths in the United States
Of the most-read stories on The New York Times website in 2016—a year that saw real estate mogul/reality TV star Donald Trump become the 45th president of the United States—two of the top 11 stories involved gun violence: The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida that killed 49 people and the sniper shooting in Dallas, Texas that left five police officers dead.
Mass shootings occur with alarming frequency. In 2013, USA Today released an interactive report, “Behind the Bloodshed,” that tracked mass shootings between 2006 and 2013. According to the report, a mass shooting (which the FBI defines as four or more killed, not including the shooter) occurs an average of once every two weeks.
And if it wasn’t mass shootings, the focus was on Chicago, which saw a 58 percent spike in homicides in 2016 from the previous year. The nation’s third-largest city recorded 762 homicides last year, the most in Chicago since 1996, and became political fodder for Trump, who pledged federal action if local officials couldn’t halt the violence.
But neither mass shootings nor one city’s challenges with violence tell the full story of gun deaths in the United States. Despite their higher profile, mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of gun deaths. According to a Washington Post report, of the 12,000-plus gun-related deaths in 2015, only 39 occurred during a mass shooting.
“What we were hearing when we started the project was, ‘Oh, [mass shootings] are increasing and they’re growing in intensity,’ and what we found is that these happen, unfortunately, on a fairly regular basis, but they’re not going up,” says Meghan Hoyer, a Washington, D.C.-based data journalist for the Associated Press who worked on the USA Today report.
In fact, more than half of gun-related deaths are suicides, but newsrooms tend to underreport on those deaths for fear of inciting copycats, says Charlie Ransford, senior director of science and policy for Cure Violence. Based out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cure Violence advocates treating gun violence as a public health crisis and taking an epidemical approach to treatment. “Violence is contagious,” Ransford says. “The reason people develop violent behavior is because they themselves have been exposed to traumatic behavior, just like someone exposed to a disease picks up the disease.”
Unfortunately, the act of a mass shooting itself can result in copycat events, Ransford says. Research from Arizona State University supports that argument, concluding that mass shootings are more likely to occur within 13 days of a previous event. “The research is confirming that mass shootings, like other types of violence, are contagious,” Ransford says. “We need to look toward reporters coming up with a code of conduct on how things should be reported in a way that’s not going to make them more contagious.”
And despite the huge uptick, Chicago ranked eighth among large cities in homicides per capita in 2016, at 27.9 per 100,000 residents, according to The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that tracks gun violence. St. Louis, Missouri is first, with 59.3 homicides per 100,000 residents.
“What’s happened in Chicago is that the increase that suddenly took place over the last few years became a critical issue for some to talk about the police, the fate of the poor and the fate of the city,” says Stephen Franklin, a former coordinator with Public Narrative, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects neglected communities with media outlets to promote more in-depth news coverage. “Our crime rate is abhorrent in terms of large cities, but not in terms of the smaller cities where they have a long-term crime problems.”
A former foreign correspondent and labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Franklin has spent years covering underserved ethnic communities. In 2010, he led a project for Public Narrative (then the Community Media Workshop) that developed guidelines to help journalists cover gun violence in a broader, more nuanced way. Since then, he’s collaborated with Craig Duff, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill journalism school, on a 2014 multi-part series on MSNBC examining violence in Chicago.
What Franklin sees is an inability to move past the same-day story and provide the kind of context that’s needed when we talk about gun violence. One example is the daily homicide log. Many publications, including hometown papers the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times (as well as neighborhood-centric site DNAinfo Chicago), track homicides as they occur. But they fail to go further in the reporting, sometimes reducing victims to mere statistics or worse, reinforcing stereotypes of lawlessness and violence in these communities.
“The feeling among a large group of black and Latino community leaders was that the reporting was shallow and harmful because it threw up stereotypes that the only time you hear about violence was in a black or Latino community,” Franklin says. “When newspapers run a homicide log with pictures and the pictures are always of the black community and all you see are faces, the message this sends out to folks who don’t know or don’t care what’s happening or have strong racist feelings is that it confirms this [stereotype] for them.”
Brad Lichtenstein, a documentary filmmaker, felt that kind of coverage was needed 90 miles north of Chicago, in nearby Milwaukee. Much like Chicago, Milwaukee was geographically segregated along lines of race and income. A former New Yorker who moved to Milwaukee in the early 2000s, Lichtenstein noticed the high rate of homicides in Milwaukee, the nation’s most segregated city, and that many of the killings disproportionately took the lives of African-Americans.
Yet it was only after the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that Lichtenstein had an epiphany.
“My heart bled, like so many other people, but at the same time, I thought about the number of mostly black young men who were losing their lives to gun violence every year in Milwaukee,” says Lichtenstein, president of 371 Productions, a multiplatform production company in Milwaukee. “I was thinking that it’s like a mass shooting, only in slow motion.”
Lichtenstein reached out to Eric Von, a longtime friend who was a popular talk-show host with WMCS 1290-AM, who helped him develop a media project. For the next two years, 371 Productions would produce weekly radio segments that delved past the same-day stories of violence to deeply examine not only who the victims were, but also the issues plaguing the community that led to the murders.
Lichtenstein hired radio producers and forged partnerships with other media outlets, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WNOV 860-AM, a black-owned radio station, and National Public Radio affiliate WUWM 89.7-FM. Von made inroads with the community and youth groups that could help story producers contact families. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism joined in, developing longform pieces on trauma and background checks. Finally, on January 13, 2015, the Precious Lives Project launched.
A 100-part weekly series, Precious Lives extensively covered youth violence. Stories ranged from the emergency-room doctors who treated the victims to the chaplains who performed the services and comforted the families. Some stories looked at logistics, such as the legal cost to taxpayers when someone is shot. Other stories searched for solutions, such as how similar-sized cities dealt with issues of gun violence.
Of the 12,000-plus gun-related deaths in 2015, only 39 occurred during a mass shooting
Some segments just told a human story. A multi-part segment followed a youth basketball team coping with the death of a star player, 13-year-old Giovonnie Cameron, and how it affected his friends and teammates.
Stories routinely checked back in with the families of shooting victims. One particular story profiled the Rev. Leondis Fuller of Word of Hope Ministries, who counsels fathers who have lost children to gun violence. Fuller himself had lost three sons, and Precious Lives returned to the man whose sons the Journal Sentinel had reported on.
“Because we were committed to revisiting it every week, we could revisit people,” says Emily Forman, a former producer on Precious Lives and a health reporter for WFYI 90.1-FM, the NPR affiliate in Indianapolis, Indiana. “We could go from talking to a family to the beat cop to the faith leader. You could draw connections between people, even in completely different parts of the city, so you could see how people knew each other and that violence isn’t discrete. It radiates.”
Forman and another producer, Aisha Turner, would typically work with Journal Sentinel crime reporter Ashley Luthern on the stories. Often, two or three of the writers would travel into predominantly black neighborhoods, sit across from family members, and listen as these people relived some of the worst days of their lives. “My sense of what it means to be a reporter really shifted,” says Turner, who had worked as a producer for the PBS NewsHour prior to joining the project. “It was less about me telling people’s stories and more figuring out what story people wanted help telling.”
One way to tell that story was to flesh out who the victim was as a person, Turner says. She recalled the story of Za’layia Jenkins, 9, who died when a stray bullet from a nearby shootout stuck her in the head. Turner interviewed Za’layia’s mother and great-aunt, who were planning a community garden near the murder scene. They regaled Turner with stories about a tomboy who loved to play football with her cousins. Za’layia liked makeup and art and was really sassy.
“One of the things her mom said was, ‘I just don’t want people to forget her name,’” Turner says. “There’s a real desire for people to honor their loved ones in a public way. As a reporter, you’re taking on that responsibility. That sense of responsibility I feel becomes about painting a fuller picture of their loved ones and the community they live in.”
But this kind of intense reporting often took a toll on the reporting team. The tight turnarounds were relentless. That created enough of a “pressure cooker” environment. “I didn’t always fully process what I had heard,” Forman says. “I got better about that. After 50 interviews, you learn something about gun violence. I had to make sure I created space to decompress or maybe just talk about it with [Luthern] or Aisha.
“You have to let the emotions of what people are saying totally wash over you to understand what they’re trying to say and what their intentions are and it’s your job to translate that,” Forman says. “So you really had to open your mind and heart and that could be harsh. You just have to check that.”
But for Turner, a young African-American woman from the East Coast with no ties to Milwaukee, the constant reporting on dying African-Americans added to the strain. “This is the hardest part to deal with,” she says. “That tension of what it means to report on the destruction of black bodies every day. It’s tough. The moments when [Emily and I] couldn’t support each other, I would say, ‘I can’t come in today. I can’t be around white people. I need to find black people and be around the kind of spirituality that can come from a sense of community.’ It required more emotional honestly in a workplace than I’ve ever had to have before.”
The project ended in December 2016 with the final installment recapping the death of Laylah Petersen, a 5-year-old who was shot and killed in November 2014. As the story ended on the final assailant’s sentencing, Turner was left asking the question: After two years, have we learned anything?
Lichtenstein thinks so. The project brought solutions to Milwaukee. There were new violence-curbing models from other cities for officials to study. The Office of Violence Prevention had a new director in Reggie Moore, a well-respected community leader and founder of the Center for Youth Engagement. People from other areas of the city were talking, asking what they can do. Yes, it was all anecdotal, but Lichtenstein thinks his friend Eric Von, who died last September of a heart attack, would have liked seeing the project’s impact. “Precious Lives was at the table for a lot of conversations,” he says. “We reached a lot of people.”
But Precious Lives reached those people because producers had the additional time, the partnerships, and the resources to report out those in-depth stories. But many journalists wonder what can be done when none of that is available?
“The answer is, as a journalist I’m working on one story, but I write down the next five stories I want to follow from that,” says Franklin, the former Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent and labor writer. “My hope is that, in this kind of reporting, if you’re a small staff or a busy staff, you come together and say, ‘Here’s what we need to look at. Guns, drugs, the march back from prison, joblessness.’ It’s not impossible.”
It may not be impossible, but it can be very difficult, even for large organizations, says Jessica Ravitz, a senior enterprise writer for CNN Digital based in Atlanta. Back in September 2015, the cable news network held a town hall meeting at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. and invited both survivors of gun violence and family members of victims to tell their stories.
The town hall was a cross-platform event intended to reach as large an audience as possible. News anchor Brooke Baldwin would handle the video segment while Ravitz, enterprise writer Wayne Drash, and digital news writer Emanuella Grinberg would draft short profiles on the participants for CNN Interactive.
With less than two hours before the taping, the attendees began arriving at the Newseum’s Knight Studio. That was all the time the reporters had to talk to the victims. “We had people floating into this room,” Ravitz says, recalling the town hall. “We each would grab a person and, for five minutes, just get a sense of who they were and why there were there. It was grueling, one horrifying story after another.”
CNN posted the package shortly after, which included the video segment, profiles and portraits of several attendees, but the final product seemed like a missed opportunity. “We all left that just kind of wrecked,” adds Ravitz. “Each person had a story that needed to be shared.”
One positive takeaway was that Ravitz met representatives from Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York-based advocacy group calling for “common-sense” gun legislation. The group helped CNN put together the town hall, and Ravitz and Drash asked the group to help them get in contact with some of the attendees. As the organization started reaching out, Drash and Ravitz began to brainstorm some possible story ideas. One thing they kept noticing in their research was that, oftentimes, reporters interviewed the parents of gun violence victims, but not the surviving children.
Homicide logs sometimes reduce victims to mere statistics or worse, reinforcing stereotypes of lawlessness and violence
“It was such a rare thing to hear from the siblings,” Drash says. “They have as much a real voice in it as the parents and, in some ways, it fades.”
One such voice was Christine Mauser, 31, an executive assistant from Beaverton, Oregon. Until meeting with Ravitz in March 2016, Mauser had rarely spoken about her brother, Daniel, one of 13 students killed during the shooting at Columbine High School back in April 1999.
Mauser was only 13 at the time, attending a nearby middle school in Littleton, Colorado, when the shooting occurred. Following the death of her brother, Mauser watched as her father, Tom, became an outspoken lobbyist and advocate for gun control, later penning a memoir. It was Tom Mauser who passed Ravitz’s information to her, and she liked that the stories would focus on siblings rather than the usual retelling of history.
The two met at Mauser’s home and sat down. Then, an odd thing happened: Christine Mauser opened up.
She talked about life after Daniel’s death: How she hated becoming an only child and loved it when her parents adopted baby sister Madeline. How, back in her single days, she cringed when dates asked about Columbine. How she keeps Daniel’s copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” nearby.
She even mentioned how, when she was younger, she thought she would die, just like her brother.
She found the interview “therapeutic … in a certain way,” she says. “When you talk about things like that with people, not a lot comes up. It’s a subject matter that makes people uncomfortable. So, people aren’t going to ask you certain questions about it. It’s interesting to break down and say things that I probably never say to people, even about basic things, like the fear that follows you around after such an event. It was nice to chat about those things. It’s not obviously pleasant, but it’s nice to get that out and acknowledge some of the things that were happening.”
Mauser became one of four siblings interviewed for “The forgotten victims of gun violence,” a multimedia package that CNN ran last September. And like Mauser, each of the stories focused on how each sibling has moved forward from the violent loss of their sister or brother to find peace.
But what has surprised Drash is that these initial reports have opened the door to more stories that relate to violence but expand on the conversation. One story he wants to pursue focuses on a family in Maine whose daughter was killed during a home invasion. The gun used in that crime was also used a month earlier in a murder committed by another assailant. Apparently, the gun had been obtained illegally, probably through a “straw purchase” where a person who cannot legally own a gun has a companion buy it on their behalf, Drash says.
“It gets to the issue of guns being sold outside of any pawn shop or online or anything like that,” he says. “We really can’t forget about these stories. They’re not going away anytime soon and too often it’s just kind of the rip-and-read stories that we do in journalism.”
Tell that to Peter Nickeas.
Since September 2011, Nickeas has worked on the breaking news desk for the Chicago Tribune. For the first three years of his tenure, Nickeas worked part time covering overnights, a shift that saw him scouring the city in the wee hours of the morning, driving from crime scene to crime scene to cover shootings.
Nickeas estimates he went to 250 crime scenes a year for those first three years, most of them shootings. Of those, the victim was dead at the scene about 20 to 25 percent of the time. If he got there quick enough, Nickeas would talk to neighbors still lingering behind the police tape. Oftentimes, there was another shooting to cover, so he had to leave. If Nickeas saw the opportunity to write about the neighborhood or the victim or expound on a conflict, “we kind of turned off from the rest of the city and just focused our efforts on that and catch up later in the night,” he says. “But I’d go to 10 or 12 crime scenes before we could talk to enough people or get enough of an understanding to pop out one of those stories.”
Ten-hour shifts stretched to 16 just out of necessity, he says. If he didn’t write the story then, it wouldn’t get out. There was always more to cover. “Then it’s like it never happened, so what are you doing?” Nickeas says. “I feel a sense of purpose and responsibility to what I cover and if I’m going to cover it, I’m going to do the best that I can.”
The pace has lightened for Nickeas since switching from the overnight shift back in October 2014. Days gives him the chance to spend more time in the neighborhoods. He can talk to people, grab lunch with folks, making inroads rather than constantly reporting. “You spend enough time with people and you start to get close and know them,” he says, “like with Benny and Jorge.”
The story, written by Nickeas, 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for photography E. Jason Wambsgans and 2012 winner Mary Schmich chronicled the lives of two former gang members, Jorge Roque and Benny Estrada, as they tried to maintain the peace in Little Village, a predominately Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Once members from rival gangs—Benny was a Latin King back in the day, Jorge (pronounced “George”) a Gangster Two-Six—the two men work together to quell tensions between the factions and diffuse escalations after shootings.
The story took nearly two years to build out, Nickeas says, going back to July 2015 following an overnight shooting in the neighborhood. The shooting led Nickeas to reach out to Father Tom Boharic of St. Agnes of Bohemia, a neighborhood Catholic church, to learn more about the church’s role in the wake of shootings. Father Tom explained: They’re all volunteers who work with the kids. Each has their own operation, but they support one another. “Nobody takes credit for anything,” Nickeas says. Father Tom passed along a few names, including Pastor Vic, a.k.a Victor Rodriguez of La Villita Community Church, Benny and Jorge.
The first time Nickeas and Wambsgans met Benny and Jorge, they barely spoke a word. “We sat down for lunch and, for three hours, we just answered questions,” Nickeas recalls. “All kinds of stuff. It allowed them to get a sense of who we were, what we were about, what we were trying to accomplish, how we conducted ourselves.”
Over the following months, Nickeas and Wambsgans would follow the men through Little Village, observing and talking, but mostly listening. He recalled Pastor Vic calling the gang culture “a generational curse.” Much like the way children follow their parents into certain professions like joining a fire or police department, gang members were often generational, with sons following their fathers into the life. “Me and Jason used to sit in Little Village in the middle of the night during overnights and talk about that, how trauma begets trauma,” Nickeas recalls. “And when Pastor Vic used that same analogy… our minds were blown.”
Finding ways to tell these broader, nuanced stories has helped move the conversation away from stigmatizing communities and toward examining the societal conditions that lead to these tragedies
Meanwhile, news continued to break in Chicago, which cut into the time Nickeas could spend in Little Village, but he continued to visit the neighborhood and talk to the guys in between assignments. He was in Little Village in July 2016 when he heard of a vigil later that night for a kid shot to death over the weekend. Nickeas walked into the church, and for the first time, he wasn’t stopped by anyone or asked if he was a cop. They knew he was the Tribune guy. He was cool. “Somebody from the community vouched for us,” Nickeas says. “It was a definite step forward.”
Nickeas convinced his editors to move him off his duties on breaking news to work on this story. He spent the fall reporting out and started writing last December. It was then that Schmich came in to work with Nickeas, helping him frame the story and build the narrative.
“Pete and I worked together very easily. We quickly came to an understanding of what he delivered and what I brought,” Schmich says. “Little Village is an extremely important story to tell and we don’t cover it well historically. We wanted to explain the good of the neighborhood, and the bad, and bring it to life.”
By February, the story was done, with the audio and video components completed by April. It was then a matter of getting it on the budget.
“I’ve never worked on something like that for so long. I’m really glad [my editors] gave me the time to do that,” says Nickeas, adding that, if he can find the time, he’d like to do more. “I probably have two or two and a half years of story ideas in a list right now.”
Finding ways to tell these broader, nuanced stories has helped move the conversation away from stigmatizing communities and toward examining the societal conditions that lead to these tragedies. But Franklin urges newsrooms to continue down this path, to not just chronicle the deaths and honor the deceased, but to help mitigate the violence.
“We need to send a message to our audience that you can hold us accountable for telling you stories accurately and fairly and you can look to us to help you come up with solutions,” he says. “I can’t think of a better way to send out this message than to take one of the most critical issues in our community and then to focus on it and say, ‘Here’s what going on. Here are the reasons.’”