Reporting on the hidden suffering caused by violence

Published on
March 26, 2015

It appeared every year among the top 10 health disparities in the city of Baltimore and state of Maryland. Violence.

And each year I wondered exactly how violence was contributing to bad health just as much as heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Sure, I knew hundreds of residents died in homicides or were hurt and even disabled during assaults. But I wondered if there was something deeper going on that needed to be explored?

That nugget of an idea is what led to the three-part series Collateral Damage that ran in The Baltimore Sun in December. I soon learned that there was tons of scientific research behind the idea that violence was creating communities throughout the country of stressed and traumatized people. Residents were walking around with anxiety disorders, children struggled to learn, and toddlers lacked emotional control.

My excitement about the potential for the topic grew with each day of reporting. But from the beginning it became clear that I would face many challenges. There was tons of information on the topic and absorbing it all and writing stories with laser focus was key to making it all work. I also knew I needed to present the topic through the stories of real people. That meant going into neighborhoods and gaining the trust of people who lived with their guard up. I also didn’t want to exploit anyone. I believe all stories have nuance. People may live in bad neighborhoods, but they still love their siblings and have good moments in their lives. I wanted to show all of those complexities.

I learned many lessons in working around these challenges during more than a year of putting Collateral Damage together. Here are the ones that stuck with me the most:

PERSISTENCE: Three women sitting on lawn chairs greeted me with suspicion as I climbed out of my car and walked up the steps of the public housing complex. Even after I told them I had come to see Joann Brewer, known as the adopted grandma to many who lived there, they continued to eye me.

It was a situation I found myself in time after time. From the second I arrived to a neighborhood, it was clear I didn’t belong. I had to revisit communities on several different occasions and convince social workers to vouch for me when families were reluctant to share their stories. When Brewer agreed to speak with me, she told her social worker, “Don’t worry, I got you.” On more than one occasion, people would share bits of their story with me, but disappear when it was time for promised follow-up interviews and I would be forced to start from scratch.

Parents were afraid to talk with me, or so busy trying to survive that they didn’t have time to open up about how fear haunted them, and their kids. They worried about what other people would think if they were seen speaking with me. One mom freely shared her family’s story while I spoke with her at the school where she worked. (Schools are often safe havens for families.) A man eating crabs was shot dead, just a few feet from their front door, she told me. It had scarred her family. But she shut down when I asked to come to the house to take pictures or see where the man had laid bleeding for hours. She made excuses about scheduling conflicts and soon stopped answering my texts and phone calls. Only after I showed up to the school, assuring her I didn’t want to do anything to put her family in danger, did she open up to me again. She worried what her neighbors might think if I came. She already didn’t speak to them much to keep away the drama and protect her children. The killer had never been caught and she always wondered if he was standing right next to her at any time. What if he was there when I came? We didn’t take photos at her home, but it was worth it. The last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the trauma many these families faced everyday. No story is worth somebody’s life.

Persistence is the only way I was able to reach many of the people. I became a pleasant pest, visiting people many times while trying to balance maintaining their trust. Some of my best details came after pursuing people for months. For example, I worked for a year to get into a support group of people who had lost family members to violence. It wasn’t until the last week that a group finally let me in and gave me some of the better details of my story. I also pursued a local pediatrician for months. She also provided some of the better details of the series.

NUANCE IN STORIES: I also constantly worried about how people were portrayed. While these families suffered the trauma of living in violent neighborhoods, they were also parents who loved their children, siblings who fought one minute and loved each other the next, and toddlers who threw major tantrums but snuggled with their teachers during story time. I debated with the editors about whether images of young children fighting on the front page of The Sun were the right ones to illustrate the story. Those images told a part of the story, but without context would they do more harm than good in the portrayal of minority children? I told stories of moms who lost sons, who had committed crimes. I wanted people to know that these families suffer too. My goal was to portray all the complexities of everyone I wrote about — to show their perseverance as well as their struggle.

FOCUS AND ORGANIZATION: The hardest part of the project to me was figuring out what to do with all the meaty reporting I had gathered. Having a great editor during this part of the process makes life easier. The first draft of the series I wrote had too much stuffed into the story. My editor helped me realize I couldn’t include everything and that I needed to pick three main ideas for three stories and focus the writing around that. We chose to tell the stories through children, caregivers of those disabled by violence, and the moms who lost family members to homicide. And in the end I probably left out 80 percent of what was in my notebook. But all the reporting made me more knowledgeable about the topic, so I was able to write with more authority.

Once the topics were picked it became easier to write, but I also learned some great tips from my editor, including writing the story in sections or mini-stories. I also found it helpful to keep a file of good quotes that I could just pull from instead of having to go back to notes. I also recorded and transcribed all of my notes. I was amazed at how many things people said that I missed during interviews, or just forgot over time. Having the transcribed notes gave me better details for the story. I also called people back during the writing to get more detail or would revisit, say, a classroom, to get more detail for the story.

Constantly talking to my editor also helped with focus. Sometimes I got so wrapped up in the reporting I couldn’t tell what was good and was not. My editor could provide a fresh eye.

MAKING SCIENCE PLAIN: The science was important to the story, but I also ran the risk of boring people. I asked scientists to talk to me like I was in elementary school. I also asked for them to give analogies that would help people understand. I also wasn’t shy about calling them many times to make sure I got it right. I found they appreciated knowing I was taking care with the story.

AFTER THE STORY IS DONE: It is important to keep the story going so the topic isn’t forgotten. We want to influence change, not just win awards. I told people when the stories would run and asked them to share them with others. I also sent everyone I interviewed links and hard copies of the stories. I answered everyone who sent me an email after the stories ran.

To move the conversation forward, The Sun has begun a community engagement project. Staffers, including a videographer, will interview parents and children about what specific things could help them and their neighborhood. We are planning to showcase this online, as well as possibly holding a screening event, with a discussion of residents and community stakeholders. We are also working with a school about doing videos of teenage boys telling their personal stories of growing up around violence.

The series resonated in many ways — perhaps most simply, through the many emails and calls of people in our city who saw themselves in these stories and realized they were not alone. “I was so happy to read this article today,” wrote one woman whose brother was murdered two years ago, “because I thought I was the only person still crying.”

We hope to keep the conversation going and take home even more lessons.

Photo by newskin0 via Flickr.