A street sign bearing his name stands near the pavement where he was slain, a monument to the seven-year-old boy who started a revolution in our newsroom.
On the morning of October 13, 1992, Dantrell Davis was holding his mother’s hand, on his way to school, when he was fatally shot by a sniper in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Although just yards away, every institution designed to protect him—family, school, police—had failed.
It soon became clear that we had failed him as well.
For years, we attended to the issues that hovered around Dantrell’s world,those loaded nouns—Poverty, Crime, Drugs—upon which lengthy newspaper series are based. But we had somehow forgotten the youngest victims, those children like Dantrell who were caught in a crossfire as unforgiving as wartime Sarajevo.
In 1993, we set out to correct our own indifference with “Killing Our Children,” a yearlong series that reported on page one the murder of every child under the age of 15 in our metropolitan area. When the year was over we’d written more than 200 stories detailing homicides of 62 children, an effort that engaged virtually every reporter on our local staff.
As then Editor Jack Fuller wrote in the project’s introduction: “A society can be fairly judged by how it treats its children. Caring for and guiding them to maturity is its most essential work, for they are the means by which it survives. By this measure, something has gone terribly wrong in our own community.”
Something had gone terribly wrong in Chicago. Children were dying violent deaths yet, in important ways, newspapers were retreating from reporting on them. Crime stories were shunned on page one, where they were viewed as irrelevant and distasteful to a growing suburban readership. By the time crack helped turn street violence into a populist movement, our coverage was marked not so much by what we reported as by what we held back.
We abided by the police department’s wish not to include the names of gangs in our reporting, buying their theory that it would only feed the egos of gang leaders and enhance their reputations. We minimized the carnage. In the month before the shooting of Dantrell Davis, not a single Chicago murder appeared on the front page of The Tribune. Did this self-censorship end the shooting? Save a life? Not one.
It was time to stop running away from the story and, as events would have it, “Killing Our Children” served as important training for what was to follow. During the past five years, the tragic national highlight reel of child violence has found too many of its featured victims in Chicago.
It is no longer enough to showcase these crimes on page one as though the mere revelation will interest or outrage the public. Reporters must dig deeper. The detail must be richer. Tragedy must not be polemical, but precisely explained. Since “Killing Our Children,” we have produced three other projects about the violence confronting children, its root causes and its possible solutions. In 1994 we published “Saving Our Children,” an examination of the conditions that place children at risk and what could be done to save lives.
In 1995, “Gambling With Life” tackled a question at the center of so many of the fractured families we had encountered: Why did parents have children who were seemingly doomed from the start? This year we are investigating what happens to cases involving children when they wind through the courts. Our evolving policy on naming juvenile offenders is a small move in the direction of full disclosure. The paternalistic custom of withholding names of underage suspects was designed to protect the reputations of youngsters accused of crimes no more serious than stealing cars for joy rides. But when eight- or nine-year-olds are accused of premeditated murder, who are we protecting? When their names have been widely circulated by CNN, what privacy are we safeguarding? Our policy still calls for a case by case consideration, but we will increasingly weigh factors such as the viciousness of a crime and the extent to which a child’s name has been publicized.
The revolution that began with Davis’s death is not done. We will investigate the institutions that collapsed under the weight of greater responsibility: the juvenile courts, public housing, the child welfare agencies, welfare itself.
More old-fashioned newspaper crusades are called for, more stories on page one, not fewer. More stories that provide insight into the crimes that test our assumptions about childhood and innocence, about the cost citizens must bear. More stories about the families. More stories about the weapons used to kill. More stories about who these children are and what they might become, before they become stories about who they were.
Robert Blau, Nieman Fellow 1997, is Special Projects Editor at The Chicago Tribune.