Immersive coverage of health issues, particularly in underserved communities

Published on
August 28, 2013

In the fall of 2011, shortly after 16-year-old Jaivon Blake and his 14-year-old friend were shot by another boy who mistakenly thought they were part of a rival gang, a group of editors at the Boston Globe met to brainstorm ways to better cover urban gang violence.

It was a familiar and vexing issue at the paper. Gun violence in the small part of the city where the shooting occurred, a neighborhood called Bowdoin-Geneva, was a drumbeat that went on year after year and had been for decades. The paper had made creative efforts in the past to penetrate the neighborhood. Stories attempted to delve into the lives of victims and the accused, and reporters had spent days or weeks attempting to profile life amid that danger. Such efforts were often inspired, but they only skimmed the surface, capturing the fact of violence but somehow failing to grasp its roots or meaning – or the true scope of life in the place where it occurred. And, inevitably, the paper’s attention shifted when the news cycle did.  

One answer, the editors concluded, might lie in an ambitious commitment to understand the neighborhood by living there. From a vantage inside Bowdoin-Geneva, experiencing life as residents do – buying food at the same stores, walking the same streets, going to bed amid the same sounds – wouldn’t reporters gain insights that might otherwise be inaccessible? Might they also earn credibility in a place where mistrust of outside institutions made conventional reporting difficult? The Globe assembled a team of more than a dozen reporters, data visualization specialists, photographers and videographers and rented an apartment in the heart of Bowdoin-Geneva. Two Globe reporters moved in full time. Three more worked from the office, with occasional stays in the apartment.

The resulting series, “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope,” was published about a year later. It included a five-part written narrative and major interactive features that employed novel data about the neighborhood and a groundbreaking survey underwritten by a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism. The project won several national awards and plaudits from media critics and academics, who praised it for journalistic innovation and for using varying forms of storytelling as tools for social insight. The project team was asked to present at several conferences on civic reform, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering a course inspired by the series. But it also received intense criticism. Some nonprofits and groups that work in Bowdoin-Geneva excoriated the project, saying that by shining light on the neighborhood, it merely exacerbated a grim image of the place as a cauldron of violence. Some also said the decision to lease an apartment was a conceit that treated the neighborhood as a mere curiosity and gave the Globe a false sense of certainty about its reporting. No outsider, those critics held, could truly experience the neighborhood because they had no roots there and knew they would soon leave. The criticism played out in community meetings held by the Globe after publication and in protracted coverage by a community newspaper that also published lengthy and passionate letters on both sides. 

The Globe defended the series, pointing critics to exhaustive sourcing, data about the frequency of shooting and to elements of the project specifically highlighting the breadth of ordinary life. But the criticism, and the questions it raises, is worth examining and may provide wisdom to anyone contemplating immersive coverage of health issues, particularly in underserved communities. Did the experiment of embedding reporters work? Did it provide the insight and observations we hoped for and, in the end, did it serve the overall mission of bringing new light to a complex and deeply entrenched issue? By placing reporters in the midst of the story did the paper inadvertently touch off criticism it might have, or should have, avoided?  

To the media critics who judged the series by its end result, there was little question. “It’s hard not to see the value of full immersion here,” said Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a media commentator who praised the series in his blog, Media Nation. “The huge investment of time can’t help but pay off in terms of understanding. It’s worth the criticism. Good journalism has to be its own reward.”

As a reporting tool, embedding was a two-edged sword in the early stages. The project began with deliberate efforts to keep word of it from reaching City Hall in order to avoid influencing the behavior of police and other city agencies working in the neighborhood. Shortly after we signed the lease, the administration learned of it, apparently tipped off by neighborhood workers who knew the broker. Whether or not there was a connection, city officials stopped returning phone calls about the neighborhood, Globe requests for data went unanswered, and neighborhood workers kept close watch on reporters’ movements. Some sources in Bowdoin-Geneva suddenly stopped talking. Relationships eventually resumed and we found ways to get data we needed, but the specter of the city trying to shape the story always loomed.    

On the other hand, other doors opened. Within days of moving in, reporters Meghan Irons and Akilah Johnson heard shots outside and saw people running. They grabbed notebooks and went to work. By being on the scene so quickly, they discovered that people, including first-arriving police, spoke more freely and with an immediacy that rarely happens when reporters arrive half an hour or more after the fact, when crime scenes are locked down. They would discover that again and again, not just when responding to scanner traffic in the middle of the night but while walking their dogs in the morning or doing their wash at the laundromat. They became familiar faces in the neighborhood and, through casual encounters, discovered important nuances about life there: the difference between front-porch gatherings and those on back porches, where bullets are less likely; that a neurologically impaired man who rides around on a three-wheeled bike is nearly universally loved and looked after by residents; that minding your own business is considered a key to survival – and a reason that neighbors often don’t know one another.

Reporters began to recognize beat cops and certain gang members. They experienced first-hand the near-constant backdrop of sirens and developed the same ear for gunfire that residents seemed to have. Irons recalls waking at night to the sound and being with neighbors when a peaceful afternoon quickly turned. “I was able to feel for myself what it’s like to be sitting on the porch and feel that everything is perfectly fine, and then suddenly everything is not fine.” And they began to perceive something they had not fully recognized before. “You start to understand an accumulation of stress and resignation,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t going home somewhere else at the end of the day. I was sleeping in it.”

The fact that the reporters lived in the neighborhood also turned out to be an effective entre to ordinary people who might have been otherwise reticent to talk. “It opened doors right away,” Johnson said. “People, would introduce me and say, ‘Oh, you know she’s living over there on Mount Ida,’ and you got a little bit of respect. It helped start a dialogue.”

But time and again in those initial months, as they attempted to dig deeper and gain more intimate understandings of individual lives, the reporters encountered what seemed impenetrable barriers, and living in the neighborhood appeared to provide little help getting past them. Word had circulated quickly in Bowdoin-Geneva that reporters were living at the apartment on Mount Ida Road, and the project team speculated that such talk might have actually become a disadvantage, branding reporters as “others” in a culture where being too open with outsiders is considered dangerous. “People were friendly and gracious,” Irons said. “They would say, ‘Come on by,’ but then they wouldn’t be there. People gave us fake addresses and phone numbers. As soon as we started asking too many questions the walls went up.”

Even some people who agreed to let reporters shadow them were closely guarded and elusive, especially at first. For more than two months, one family would only speak on the porch or in common area of their house, not allowing the reporter in to where they lived and talking only superficially about their lives. Two story lines that initially appeared rock solid were finally dropped because the sources simply disappeared. Breaking through required brute persistence.

Chance encounters on the street were a big help. On several occasions Irons happened to see members of her elusive family on the street while she ran errands. Thus cornered, they let her tag along and eventually allowed her more fully into their lives. The reporters also began to understand that the culture of the neighborhood demanded new reporting tactics. Johnson discovered that sources would answer politely but say little of substance in public when she wrote in a notebook. But if she typed notes on her smart phone, they opened up.

“I was always extremely clear that I was taking notes for a story, but if I’m sitting on somebody’s porch with a notebook, that person is going to have to explain to their neighbors why they were talking to a reporter. Typing on my phone, I looked like just another person texting away. In a neighborhood where everybody fears being a snitch, that makes a difference.”

By being constantly in the street, the reporters began to learn that the resistance they encountered largely grew from deeply entrenched fears -- of judgment by neighbors, reprisals from gangs and of outside institutions, especially the media, which many saw as irrelevant to their lives or, in some cases, as an enemy. Living in the neighborhood did little to assuage those feelings. But it ultimately appeared to be one of many things that accumulated in the minds of the stories’ main subjects, adding up to something that finally won trust and pierced a veil.

 That was not always apparent in the heat of battle; though the resistance and elusiveness of some of the stories’ subjects diminished, it never fully went away, and reporting remained difficult to the end. After publication, it became much clearer what had been gained, both in terms of content and good will. People who were featured in the series were deeply grateful for what they said were sensitive and complex depictions of the way they live and the issues they face. They, along with the vast majority of readers who wrote or called the Globe about the series, including a number who live in the neighborhood or who grew up there, said the fact that the Globe elected to live there showed a kind of commitment that was rare and that mattered.

The criticism that came along with that feedback was louder but from a relatively small number of people. Many of them (though not all), were white, which may suggest an interesting divergence of points of view along race lines. In any case, a common charge among them was that the Globe gratuitously and inaccurately inflated a stereotype of the community as overwhelmingly violent. It may be hard, at the end of the day, to definitively conclude they were wrong or right, given the potentially vast gulf in residents’ experiences and beliefs about their neighborhood. But the fact that reporters lived there – seeing it and experiencing it themselves – augmented the already overwhelming evidence and gave them authority to depict te complexity they saw.

It also earned a measure of respect that feels difficult to have found any other way. At a forum sponsored by the Globe after publication, a number of angry critics spoke. Nate Davis, a principle character in the series and the father of a 14-year-old boy who was shot to death, was there. He listened without expression for some time then spoke. “I’ve been living in the neighborhood since I was 10 years old,” he said. “I’ve seen the challenges there. I raised my kids there, and then my son was killed there. This is something that needs to be out and not hidden. These reporters took the time. They didn’t just come out on porches and ask who we were. They lived there. They earned our respect.”

“68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope” was reported and written by Maria Cramer, Akilah Johnson, Meghan Irons, Jenna Russell and Andrew Ryan.

Photographers: Yoon Byun, Bill Greene and Suzanne Kreiter

Video: Darren Durlach and Scott LaPierre

Data visualization, graphics and social media: David Butler, Matt Carroll, Alvin Chang, Gabriel Florit and Chris Marstall

PHOTO CREDIT: Bill Greene/Globe Staff