One of DNAinfo’s first projects was also one of its most ambitious: a timeline of every murder within city limits. When the hyperlocal website launched its Chicago branch in late 2012, they hoped to raise the standards of local crime reporting. “The idea is to do old-school reporting in a new medium,” the Reader reported. “Knocking on doors. Shoe leather.”
Darryl Holliday, who is on the Weekly’s Board of Directors, was one of about five reporters working the homicide beat in the outlet’s first years. They refined a routine: each shift would have someone in the office, listening to the police scanner in one ear and the fire department scanner in the other, and a second reporter out as the runner.
The runner would drive over when the scanner reported a shooting or other violent crime, often arriving within twenty minutes of its first mention and finding a body in the street. The office reporter would call the Chicago Police Department to confirm details while the runner would take pictures and try to talk to those present. “Witnesses are hard to come by,” says Holliday, “but people always tell you how many shots they heard. They’re usually wrong.” The runner would follow up with family and neighbors over the next few days. Shifts would often last eight hours or more.
DNAinfo’s murder timeline raised the bar for crime reporting in Chicago, but also raises some fundamental questions: Why should we tell isolated stories about violent crime? Do reports of shootings serve impoverished neighborhoods or illuminate institutional violence? What, to put it simply, is crime reporting for?
Sitting outside a Logan Square coffee shop this month, Holliday reflects on his years doing this kind of reporting full-time. “In the beginning it was really hard. I used to have nightmares all the time. There really isn’t anything that can prepare you.” He grows more solemn, pausing.
“Two years ago, if we were having this conversation, I’d probably end up at a point where I was just screaming with frustration,” he says. Holliday describes a disquiet and rage without object, the psychological wear and tear of a job that brought him in contact with people on the worst days of their lives—a job that meant asking grieving parents for comment over the bodies of their dead children, repeated exposure to the city’s darkest manifestations of system failure.
Holliday himself has wavered on how crime should be reported. “Over the three years we were really doing it seriously, I think there was a response in the media. There was more coverage,” he says. “But the funny thing is, I’ve come to think the opposite: maybe it’s not worth it to cover every single shooting, every single death.”
DNAinfo brings more time and compassion than most to the daily crime report. Chicago’s largest newspapers, the Sun-Times and the Tribune, rely heavily on CPD press releases and statements to write up their regular coverage.
Doing original reporting on crime is tough; in an area where there’s just been a shooting, those closest to the trauma aren’t necessarily eager to talk to the press. When they’re written mainly from a CPD report, the standard tales of violence have recurring characters—the gangbanger, the grieving mother, the innocent child—with often-unsaid markers of race and class.
The narrative seduction of violence is no secret; “if it bleeds it leads” is as much an editorial truism as “sex sells.” Crime reporting can pathologize black and brown communities in Chicago’s poorer, disenfranchised areas, the same areas that have seen a retraction of resources in the past decades—with closed public housing facilities, mental health clinics, and public schools among the most visible. Impoverished neighborhoods receive impoverished coverage, cultivating an awareness not of suffering but of danger. To cover only a neighborhood’s crime is to say, subtly but repeatedly, that bad things happen to bad people.
“In most crime coverage, you’ll see the constant representation of communities of color as crime-ridden places, and that takes the eye off the fact that there are people everywhere trying to make incredible change and transformation on their own,” says Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of the Chicago Reporter. The Reporter doesn’t have a crime beat. Instead, they have a police section and focus on accountability and institutions that surround crime, like the court and prison systems.
The relationship between the CPD and the city’s media outlets is complicated, if not broken. “To me, one of the fundamental problems with crime coverage, getting past the spectacle of crime and the racialization of it, is this: to be effective, police reporters have got to get a good relationship with police officers,” says Richardson.
“We get caught in this crazy loop,” she continues. “Police are the official source when it comes to crime stories, yet at the same time you find out later that they’re involved in covering up crime. The very people you have to go to as the official source can turn around and be the ones you really need to be investigating. It’s a real inconsistency that journalists have yet to come to terms with.”
Last October, after Officer Jason Van Dyke shot seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times, the Sun-Times and the Tribune reported from the police union spokesman that McDonald had “a strange gaze about him” and had punctured a squad car’s tires before lunging at officers with a knife.
CPD press releases take a certain tone when the hand that pulls the trigger belongs to an officer. “They always say, ‘The police officer, fearing for his life, drew his weapon,” says Holliday. “That’s how it always ends, because that’s the crux of the legal definition for whether it’s justified or not: whether or not you feared for your life.”
In the case of Laquan McDonald, witnesses later said that he never lunged. Initial reports obscured the number of shots fired. Jamie Kalven, a journalist and civil rights activist who in recent years has focused his efforts on examining police brutality, read the blurbs about McDonald but didn’t initially follow the story.
“It was only because of a source inside the city who reached out and said, ‘Look into this case. There’s video, the kid was shot an extraordinary number of times. I think they’re going to cover it up,’ ” Kalven says. Suspicious and worried there would be no substantial investigation, he put out a public call through his investigative group, the Invisible Institute, for the city to release the CPD’s dash-cam video from the scene of the shooting.
Kalven tracked down a witness, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but recounted that McDonald had tried to run and that policemen immediately attempted to clear the scene, threatening bystanders with arrest. “The cover-up began right away,” Kalven says. He obtained the autopsy through a Freedom of Information Act request and in February released its details in Slate, describing each of the sixteen gunshot wounds and highlighting inconsistencies in the police report. In April, the city awarded McDonald’s family a $5 million settlement to preclude legal action.
“They settled a case that wasn’t even a case yet, and that’s a measure of how powerful this video is,” says Kalven. Officer Van Dyke is under state and federal investigation, but the footage of McDonald’s shooting—despite an additional call for its release last month from the editorial board of the New York Times—has yet to be made available to the public.
Kalven’s advocacy for McDonald is part of a larger project to examine “how we register, understand, and code violence.” Kalven is working with newly released police complaint records—he calls the CPD’s internal system for tracking these records “a system for not knowing”—and with the Invisible Institute he has been part of the Youth/Police Project for the past four years, giving teens the chance to speak on easily forgotten injustices.
“Our ability to create spaces beyond the pale is associated with our attribution of violence to particular categories of people,” he says. “Very little that happens in journalism pushes back against that or offsets it, and a lot inadvertently reinforces it.” The reliance of most crime reporting on CPD statements leaves a blind spot in covering police brutality and a hole in day-to-day coverage, obscuring an essential dimension of the wider system of violence in Chicago. Without Kalven, the Invisible Institute, and their anonymous tip from inside the city, reports on McDonald’s shooting could easily have ended last October.
“It’s easy to think you just have crime. Crime appears! But crime is a factor of education and employment and mental health services, and a lack of all those things. And a disinvestment in communities—a history of disinvestment in communities. That’s where crime comes from,” says Holliday, who now covers Logan Square and Humboldt Park for DNAinfo.
“We’re conditioned, as reporters, to think that any violent crime, any gunshot is a story,” he goes on. “When it comes to white collar crime, property crime, high interest rate bank crime—these things are not things we automatically think we need to dig into. But every single shooting that ever happens is supposed to be an event that affects the entire city.”
On one level, violence is always an event that affects the entire city. Death and suffering are always news, always bring new pain and grief. Those closest have never already heard it, and the trauma reverberates. But to look at atrocity is not necessarily to ascribe it meaning; to mourn the repetition and routine of violent crime in Chicago, and especially its impoverished neighborhoods, is not necessarily a step toward making things better. It is only to say: I see this.
What sort of looking might let us see past the narrative charisma of violence to view it on quieter, more systemic levels? When it comes to rates of crime and police brutality, the biggest news is their regularity.
“I think part of our challenge as reporters is that if we call it a crisis we’re going to get it wrong; a crisis is a departure from the status quo,” says Kalven. “How you report on conditions of structural violence that are part of the ongoingness of the society is a real puzzle.”
Making violence matter, along with the lives it claims, is a process for which one-off reporting isn’t the first step. Groups like the Reporter and the Invisible Institute work to illuminate context, but they are small and the exceptions. Rendering the totality of violence legible, including crime committed by those meant to enforce the law, is a huge and ongoing project. The task, one too often neglected by daily coverage, is to trace the invisible threads that let much of Chicago’s senseless violence make sense.