Saturday, February 27, 2010

Behind the Scenes

There is an excellent trio of stories in this article from the Harvard’s journalism center, Nieman Reports, about reporting on crime stories in depth.

An excerpt from the first story.

“In terms of trauma, the crime beat takes a different toll from some others. It’s one thing to be a war correspondent; people acknowledge that you’ve been through a whole lot. But the crime beat is often thrown on real young people and then day after day after day it chips away at them. It’s an insidious kind of numbness and little horrors that are witnessed over and over again. People cope very differently, but I’d say that the way we cover this story also affects how much trauma we’re going to experience. You can look at it as a story about how we have the innocent victim here and this horrible person over here who is a murderer or rapist. If a reporter follows that paradigm, and it probably suits the majority of reporters, they can go home and sleep at night. In fact, you’ll probably leave work early if you’re just going to write that story—good guys, bad guys. But good reporters know it’s not that simple.

“Every time there’s a gang shooting, two families, at least, are ripped apart. There are the parents of the victim who’ve lost their son or daughter and the parents of another child who’s about to go do life in prison. Very often it’s only a very fine line of fate between the two that decides which one is which. This good guy/bad guy innocent victim thing is completely blurry. And often in the same family there are victims of violence and perpetrators of it; sometimes this is the same person. So to cover this responsibly we have to dig deep. We cannot just tell the cops’ side of the story. And it’s even too easy to cover the victims’ side of the story.

“Let me give an example of how a more rounded approach can help a community, or at least get it started on a different road. We covered a gang shooting with a 19-year-old kid named Little Mando in Salinas. It was a murder in a bar, gang-related, execution style, and that is how it played out in the papers and on the television. But my co-reporter George Sánchez and I started digging around on the perpetrator’s side of the story and found out that this kid was literally raised in a gang. Since he was nine years old he was smoking pot and committing robberies; his first armed robbery was when he was 12. Everyone in this family raised him to be part of this.

“As we started doing stories about his life, we’d hear people in the community asking, “Well, gee, did Armando Frias have a choice? He was raised in this. How could he be anything else than what he was?” Other people would say, “Yeah, of course he had a choice. We have free will. There were kids faced with worse things than Armando who walked away.”

“I asked Armando if he had a choice. He said he did. But then he’d tell me that everyone in his family looked at him as soon as he was born and said, “You’re going to be just like your father. You’re going to be just like your father.” And his first words when I met him were, “I always wanted to be just like my father.”