Julia Reynolds, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, began reporting on crime for the Monterey County (Calif.) Herald after she’d spent four years working on a documentary film about gang violence in Salinas, California. A personal experience she had with violent crime left her with an understanding shared by few reporters. As she put it in opening her remarks, “A lot of reporters forget that seeing someone get sentenced in your case has really nothing to do with justice and definitely nothing with closure or healing.” Early in her career as a journalist, she didn’t want to cover violence, but two decades later, after reviewing court records about her case, she went to Salinas to do a documentary film about “a lot of young people who were killing each other over a kind of confusing cause. It was all young Latino males getting killed and doing most of the killing.” Reynolds went on to talk about the emotional toll on those who cover a crime beat when young people are murdering other young people.
In terms of trauma, the crime beat takes a different toll from some others. It’s one thing to be a war correspondent; people acknowledge that you’ve been through a whole lot. But the crime beat is often thrown on real young people and then day after day after day it chips away at them. It’s an insidious kind of numbness and little horrors that are witnessed over and over again. People cope very differently, but I’d say that the way we cover this story also affects how much trauma we’re going to experience. You can look at it as a story about how we have the innocent victim here and this horrible person over here who is a murderer or rapist. If a reporter follows that paradigm, and it probably suits the majority of reporters, they can go home and sleep at night. In fact, you’ll probably leave work early if you’re just going to write that story—good guys, bad guys. But good reporters know it’s not that simple.
Every time there’s a gang shooting, two families, at least, are ripped apart. There are the parents of the victim who’ve lost their son or daughter and the parents of another child who’s about to go do life in prison. Very often it’s only a very fine line of fate between the two that decides which one is which. This good guy/bad guy innocent victim thing is completely blurry. And often in the same family there are victims of violence and perpetrators of it; sometimes this is the same person. So to cover this responsibly we have to dig deep. We cannot just tell the cops’ side of the story. And it’s even too easy to cover the victims’ side of the story.
Read more about Armando Frias and Julia Reynolds’ investigation at the Center for Investigative Reporting »Let me give an example of how a more rounded approach can help a community, or at least get it started on a different road. We covered a gang shooting with a 19-year-old kid named Little Mando in Salinas. It was a murder in a bar, gang-related, execution style, and that is how it played out in the papers and on the television. But my co-reporter George Sánchez and I started digging around on the perpetrator’s side of the story and found out that this kid was literally raised in a gang. Since he was nine years old he was smoking pot and committing robberies; his first armed robbery was when he was 12. Everyone in this family raised him to be part of this.
As we started doing stories about his life, we’d hear people in the community asking, “Well, gee, did Armando Frias have a choice? He was raised in this. How could he be anything else than what he was?” Other people would say, “Yeah, of course he had a choice. We have free will. There were kids faced with worse things than Armando who walked away.”
I asked Armando if he had a choice. He said he did. But then he’d tell me that everyone in his family looked at him as soon as he was born and said, “You’re going to be just like your father. You’re going to be just like your father.” And his first words when I met him were, “I always wanted to be just like my father.”
But the important thing was that his crime wasn’t a random front-page thing; it became a community issue, a matter of public discussion. People in Salinas asked themselves, “Did he have a choice? Or did we help make this choice?” This is where a little more in-depth reporting can take a crime like this one out of the context of a random act of violence. And it can at least get a community to start asking the right questions because gang violence is a community trauma.
I know reporters don’t have time to always go around and talk to Armando’s family and do all that. But in between the deadline breaking stories, I feel passionately that we’ve got to take the time every few weeks, or whenever possible, to get behind what’s going on. Even if it’s just once every couple of months to put something in context, and even with the little breaking stories put some context.
See accompanying article for Reynolds’ suggestions of coping mechanisms »This kind of journalism requires a lot of immersion, which also means more emotional involvement. Because you’ve spent more time in the streets, you’ve also spent more time with families, holding hands, listening to stories. So, how do you deal with this? I’ve got a few things on my list. These things, by no means, make you heal; there’s a part of you that never recovers from even covering trauma so to expect that you will is ridiculous. You’re going to carry this weight and this pain with you the rest of your life if you’re a caring, sensitive human being. It’s not going to go away, but you have got to figure out how to function.
Rachel Dissell is a reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio who covers juvenile justice, children and family issues, and county corruption. In “Johanna: Facing Forward,” she explored the tragic story of what happened after a young woman reported that her former boyfriend had raped her.
He was arrested and put in juvenile detention, then released with an electronic monitoring bracelet. He did not follow the rules; he basically went wherever he wanted, and 12 days after he was let out of juvenile detention he stalked her. She was sitting in her driveway and he came up and shot her, and the effect of the shotgun blast pretty much blew off the entire bottom of her face. So of course we covered that as a news story, and we wanted to cover it as a continuing story. There was a lot of context needed and we didn’t really know what the situation would be.
The first time I met Johanna, who I’d follow around for the next eight months, she was in a hospital bed and she had something that looked like a football helmet wrapped around her face. The only way we could communicate was on a dry erase board. This presented all kinds of complications. Also I learned from her family that she had a tough time talking about things; they knew this because she’d had a tough time talking when she had suffered a previous trauma. I mean she’d had these two immediate traumas—being raped by her ex-boyfriend, and then shot, but several years before she’d lost both of her parents within a week’s time. Her mom died of a kidney disease that she’d had for a while, and then 11 days later her dad died in a car accident.
So I’m thinking about what is the most sensitive way I can approach her. But she pretty much came up with a solution on her own. On the day we met, she started asking me questions about writing, and I asked her, “Why? Are you interested in writing?” She said, “Oh, I always keep a journal. I like to keep a journal. I write a lot. I write a lot of poems. You know, when my parents died they made me go to this counselor and he just kept asking me how I was feeling and I just wanted to hit him over the head and say, ‘Like I’m going to tell you.’” She wrote it in her journal instead.
So that’s the way I decided to proceed, and from there our process evolved. It ended up being the oddest thing; it’s like a story that I reported through reading someone else’s journal, a dry erase board, and text messages. After we got to know each other and we’d gained each other’s trust, Johanna gave me a set of journals that she had kept through her relationship with this young man, and it was such a powerful thing. One night when I was going to meet with her doctor so we could kind of discuss his role, I sat in my car in a alleyway behind a sushi place and started reading Johanna’s journals. This was a big mistake because by the time I went in for the sushi I was almost sobbing.
The language of teenagers is not always the most eloquent language, but in some ways it gets across things that you can’t get across in a conversation with a teenager because the answer to a lot of questions is, “I’m fine.” “How are you?” “Sad.” You know? You get these kinds of responses that don’t help you a lot.
So this is a journal entry that she wrote, just a short one on April 30, 2006; she was 17 years old and about a year into this two-year relationship she had with this young man. And she wrote:
My heart is really sad right now. Today, Juan pushed me down and called me a bitch. It hurt me so much inside. I don’t understand why he turned out to be this way. He never was like this towards me before. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but I really do love him. I treat him so good. I just don’t know why he has to be like that. I miss the way he used to hold me, treat me, kiss me, and just think of me at night. Well, that’s all my thoughts for now, I’ll write you back soon.
And so I had these two volumes of things like this to go through. And I think they were really helpful in letting me see the arc of this relationship, because without that I’m just seeing the result. I’m not seeing everything that came before it. And it really helped me understand some things that I came across later.
Listen to Dissell read from Johanna’s journals and hear Johanna read the poem she wrote about her former boyfriend on the day he pled guilty to shooting her.
Luis Rodriguez writes about issues of race, class, gender and personal rage through dialogues, stories, poetry and art. In his book “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.,” he wrote about his life as a gang member. In his “Aftermath” presentation, he spoke about “the regeneration of traumatized communities” and of the healing during the aftermath of violence and tragedy. He began by setting the scene in Los Angeles.
L.A. is “the gang capital of the world.” Let me explain the numbers. From 1980 to the year 2000, 15,000 young people were killed in the streets of L.A. There are 700 gangs in L.A.; 500 are Latino gangs. The murder rate in Los Angeles is very low for the city, one of the lowest for the big cities. There are whole communities in L.A. that have hardly any crime and no murders. But take just parts of South Central and East L.A. and the murder rate officially for Latinos is 70 per 100,000. That’s as high as the highest murder rate in the world, which is in South Africa. But for African Americans, it’s 120 per 100,000. It’s higher than even the highest rate in the world.
I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and so I have come here as a journalist but also as somebody who has been a perpetrator, a victim, and a survivor. I can’t tell you that I was just a victim. I was a gang member. I did shoot people, I stabbed people, but I was also shot at, and I lost a lot of friends. This was 40 years ago and people didn’t know about gangs. In fact, I had lost 25 friends by the time I was 18. But unlike a lot of my friends, I did transcend some of this, and I became a journalist and an activist.
Besides journalism, I’ve been working for many years in the regenerative, renewing work of community. And this is primarily reflected in my book, “Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times,” in which I try to summarize 30 years’ worth of work that I’ve done in Chicago and in L.A. to recreate, re-imagine and regenerate community, which is something the media do not cover very well. They can cover the trauma and they can cover all the pain, and then they stop. They don’t go back to see what happened to those who were involved in the violence. What did they do? Who actually got healed? Who actually changed? That never gets covered.
If you don’t heal, you become very bitter, and bitter makes you brittle. The communities are very fractured and very vulnerable and very weak. So we decided to create this little cultural center, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, in a strip mall in the Northeast Valley, which is the “Mexican” side of the San Fernando Valley where 80 percent of the 450,000 residents come from Mexico and Central America. There was not one bookstore, art gallery or cultural center until we opened our doors. We’ve become like the oasis in strip malls, creating places where people can come and be creative. We have a guitar workshop, piano and drumming. We have Son Jarocho, a tradition out of Veracruz, and capoeira and other healing arts from indigenous communities. We have writing workshops and original theater and a weekly open mike for which people just show up and tell amazing stories, sing songs, do poetry, hip hop, whatever they want.
Rodriguez talks about some of the lives that have been changed through the efforts of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural. Hear him tell the story about Alex Carpio. Like Rodriguez, Carpio grew up in East Los Angeles and joined a gang, but Carpio was shot five times in his head when he was 15 years old. Even though he became blind, Carpio remained an active member of his gang, until he was 30 years old and decided to turn his life around.
I want to end with an idea: trauma has trajectories we’ve talked about, and then it has one we rarely think about—the imagination. Real violence comes from the total lack of imagination, and no imagination exists in these children’s lives. Just injecting the idea that they could be creative is powerful—letting them know they could have imaginative ways of looking at things and could even care. The arts, creativity, poetry, all of these wonderful things begin to open up the possibilities that normally wouldn’t be open. That is why I don’t have an anti-gang moniker at Tia Chucha’s. That’s why I don’t have any of the stuff that is treatment. I don’t have a problem with that; if people need treatment; we will refer them. If they need a job; we’ll refer them. If they need their tattoos removed, we’ll refer them. But what we do is imaginative work in that community. And that’s the kind of work that I know heals and can transform community.
This is the kind of story that we don’t get told. But it is probably the one that now needs to be told. If you’re covering this violence, also cover what happens when people go into these communities and change people’s lives.
During the question and answer period, panelists talked about a lack of understanding among journalists about the full dimension of crime stories.
Rodriguez: It’s very sad that most news media won’t cover what we do. I have my own online magazine; I have to have my own news outlets and I also write about it myself. I’ve tried. We’ve sent out press releases and once in a while somebody will show up from the Los Angeles Times, but most of the time nobody shows up. We have this great festival—the only literacy and art festival in the whole San Fernando Valley every year with 500 to 600 people who show up, but no media show up. But the one year some kid got shot down the street, everybody from the media was there. And that’s the way it is; if I had shot somebody, people would have shown up. I think it is shifting. People are starting to realize there’s more to the story. This is what I would like to help get people to see—the healing part, the community regeneration, and the capacity that communities have to heal themselves. I’m doing a film called “The Long Run: Finding the Life You Were Meant to Live” documenting this kind of work.
Reynolds: Right now we’re not asking the right questions in our stories of our local leaders because we don’t have the education. We need to be training and teaching journalists much more about the solutions; we’re learning about the problem here, but we’re not always learning a whole lot about solutions, and there are solutions that work.
The city of Stockton, California has had an incredible turnaround with almost no budget whatsoever, but they were able to put what resources they had and turn neighborhoods around and drop the homicide rate. Reporters need to know this and then ask questions and do stories analyzing where the money is going in their city and point out in the articles that it’s not going to this. And then ask the mayor, “Do you know about the Stockton miracle? Well, here’s the report. Read it and then I’m going to call you tomorrow and ask you about it and see what the city is doing and compare what we’re doing to what worked in Stockton.”
We’ve got to learn and then we’ve got to put public officials’ feet to the fire. You could say, OK, that’s the fine line between being an activist and being a journalist, but I think it’s civic journalism. There’s nothing radical about wanting fewer kids to die.