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Hard-won lessons from reporting on the long shadow of violence in Baltimore

Hard-won lessons from reporting on the long shadow of violence in Baltimore

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The Freddie Gray tragedy and Baltimore’s ensuing riots and murders thrust the national-media spotlight on the city this past summer. Anyone who has seen an episode of “The Wire,” the venerated HBO show created by a former Baltimore Sun police reporter, already knew of the city’s infamous reputation for body counts and broken lives. But beyond that well-trodden ground lies another story that has drawn far less attention — the enduring impacts of violence on the children and families who aren’t the first-person victims of crime, but suffer its horrible effects for years afterwards, often in the form of trauma, stress, or the heavy burdens of caregiving.

These were the stories that Baltimore Sun staff writer Andrea McDaniels, a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellow, set out to tell in a three-part series, “Collateral Damage.” “You think of violence and you think of gang bangers getting killed,” McDaniels said. “I wanted to find out: What happens to everybody else? What does violence mean aside from people laying dead in the street from a gunshot wound?”

McDaniels and her editor, Diana Sugg, a former Sun reporter who won the Pulitzer for beat reporting in 2003, candidly shared a host of lessons and insights from the series’ arduous path to publication with a group of fellow reporters at the National Health Journalism Fellowship in Los Angeles in July.

Almost nothing about the project was easy, as McDaniels made clear. From finding neighborhood sources willing to talk to figuring out to how to best structure the stories to agonizing over decisions over which children could withstand the front-page photo spotlight, this was one tough assignment.

“I spent the most time finding the best people to tell the story,” McDaniels said. “I went through dozens and dozens of people before I found the right ones.”

The right ones eventually came to include people such as Charles Ropka, who has lived in his family’s basement for the past 35 years after a neighbor shot him in the head, paralyzing him, when he was 18. His mother has devoted her life to providing the strenuous daily care her son requires.

It also included a 11-year-old girl who witnessed at close range a 23-year-old acquaintance get shot repeatedly as he ate crabs in the courtyard in front of her home. And Alice Oaks, a Baltimore mother who lost both of her sons to shootings within four years.

But these stories only came after “a lot of false starts,” McDaniels said. Gang members were wary and hard to build rapport with; residents were reflexively defensive of their neighborhood; media distrust was pervasive; and others feared retribution for talking. Once found, seemingly ideal sources wouldn’t return calls.

“People got scared and worried a lot about being in the paper,” McDaniels said. “It was a matter of going back and telling them that you’ll work with them, that you don’t want to exploit them.”

“A lot of these families size reporters up quite quickly and make calls about what to tell you,” Sugg added, urging reporters to be sensitive, but also to keep pushing subjects for the full story as tactfully as possible. “Often, it’s good for them, and later they’re always thankful they talked about it.”

Such reporting also benefits from a stubborn streak. “I think the big message is: Call everyone; go to every meeting; do not give up; keep going back,” Sugg said. “I think in general, for newspaper reporters, giving up is probably the most common mistake people make. The best stories, they’re hidden. It takes a long time. The reason they’re so good is that 99 percent of the reporters give up.”

In the end, support groups and disability groups led McDaniels to the subjects she needed. “I know it sounds basic, but persistence is what really helped this story,” McDaniels told fellow journalists. “Trying and trying and keep on trying — not taking no for an answer.”

Finding the right subjects was hard, but then came the question of how to package all those hard-won interviews and research McDaniels had accumulated into an impactful series. That’s where Sugg and her editorial instincts kicked in. So how do you starting shaping such large, ambitious reporting projects?

“One really good piece of advice is to look for the small story within the larger story,” Sugg told fellows. “So think of ‘Schindler’s List’ inside of the broad background of World War II. Or ‘Band of Brothers.’ The best stories are always the smaller stories set against some big backdrop. You don’t want an encyclopedia article. You want to find some angle, some way in, that people don’t know about. And something that’s been neglected — I think that’s the most powerful stuff.”

In the end, McDaniels whittled her original four or five story ideas down to a tightly focused three-part series. The first story looked at how children were affected by violence in Baltimore’s Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood, while the second looked at the psychological and physical burdens faced by those providing care for victims. The third story explored the persistent grief faced by relatives of homicide victims, asking the question: “What happens when the cameras go away, in the months or years after?”

Once published, the series quickly gained notice. One of the city’s most prominent preachers read one of McDaniels’ stories from the pulpit to 1,000 or so gatherers. The following day, an elderly woman walked in and wrote a check for $10,000 to one of the featured nonprofits. A consortium of groups led by the University of Maryland was later awarded a $75,000 grant for youth violence prevention work.  A moved reader wrote an email to McDaniels: “I never realized how bad it was, and I thought I was the only one still crying.” McDaniels and Sugg are now working on a community engagement effort at the Sun to further the conversation started by the project.

Reflecting on such enterprising stories, Sugg turned to a geology metaphor.

“I always envision the best stories as kind of like these really rich rivers deep underground that you’ve really got to mine down to get into. In many ways, there wasn’t anything new about the stories that Andrea did. They were issues that were going on in the community for a long time, and unless you were right in the community, you didn’t know about it, you didn’t think about, and no one had really stepped back and looked at the big picture.”

Read Andrea McDaniels’ three-part “Collateral Damage” series here.

[Photo by Derek Bridges via Flickr.]

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