March 30, 2009

Crime, grief and bank takeovers


On November 4, 1991, my little brother was born. I was at home though, sitting at my kitchen table, staring into the plastic wrap of a gift basket. At the same time, no more than 300 miles away Oscar Bills, Jr. was shot to death in his driveway. He was in his twenties, like I am today.

I always find it a little eerie when I discover something horrible happened during a time where I can match my exact whereabouts to the event. When you become aware, it's kind of like you momentarily draw a link with the victim or the victim's family. You become witness, at least in some strange way, to something terrible and your brain isn't quite sure how to react.

I found out about Oscar Bill's murder after listening to episode #342 of This American Life ("How to Rest in Peace"). It was easily the most disturbing episode I've ever listened to, but interesting nonetheless. In it they reference to this article in The Atlantic (1997) about the families of murder victims. It's long, so if you don't have some time to spare I'd wait till the weekend.

"She came out of the neighbor's house and asked, "Is she dead?" Al said, "Yes," and Harriett blacked out. Moments later she heard horrible screaming and wailing, like the sounds of a wounded animal way off in the distance, and then she suddenly realized that the sounds were coming from her, that she was screaming and wailing and pounding on Al's chest. In an instant she came to, and saw that Al was sobbing..."
The story talks a lot about grief, which was consequently a huge part of the theme in TAL #342. The article begins with a note on America:
"Americans are fascinated by murders and murderers but not by the families of the people who are killed -- an amazingly numerous group, whose members can turn only to one another for sympathy and understanding."
The story made me think more about a crime reporter's role in telling those types of stories. NPR actually hosted a roundtable of crime writers in July 2008. They spoke a lot about how race affects their jobs, but also a bit about their actual work routine. One of them said:
"My passion was to cover the communities where the crime happened, rather than the crime."
I like that statement. It's true, reporting like this should be more about how it affects the community you cover, not just the defendant, and certainly not just the crime. Maybe this is a common point, and I'm just new to thinking about it. But it's something I want to remember when I go into the business of journalism.

I am an avid fan of The Wire (Omar! Word). It's a television show about crime in Baltimore, Maryland - which superficially got me obsessed with following The Baltimore Sun. I recently ran across a Sun blog post entitled "A Reporter's Lament" (just one of the posts at the Sun's crime blog).

They post about a lot of things, including how they (the reporters) see themselves as part of the community, their dealings with police, what the murder numbers mean for individual communities, and even a few personal stories from the job. In one post they linked to this man, a retired police captain turned citizen-crime blogger (remind anyone of a particular character in The Wire?). He has a different perspective, and it's interesting to compare some of his notes with those authored by the newspapermen.

It's all fascinating. Hearing these people and looking at their crime maps (2006), it makes me super-curious and even more interested in covering these types of stories, at least for a bit.

ALSO CHECK THESE OUT
Photobucket NPR: Anatomy of a bank takeover
Photobucket NYT: New 1 in 8 Million profile

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4 Comments:

Blogger JHitts said...

The Wire is currently consuming all aspects of my life. Last night I stayed up until 5 am just to finish season 3. Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.

March 31, 2009 at 2:09 AM 
Blogger Daniel Silliman said...

Omar is amazing and easily the best character on TV.

Even after three months, I still get all conflicted when I think about crime reporting. I think it's a really important, to tell those stories, but I don't know that anyone cares, that anyone can really hear the stories and let the stories elicit meaningful reactions. I don't know. I didn't hear a lot of compassion coming in response to crime reporting, and not a lot of broken hearts.

March 31, 2009 at 6:09 AM 
Blogger Chase Purdy said...

JACK:
Yes. I know. I sped through all the seasons in less than a month.

"Hell I take any mothafucker's money if he givin' it away! Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit!"

SILLIMAN:
Omar is definitely my favorite character in the show.

Yeah, I thought about that some while listening and reading all this stuff. It keeps coming up that crime reporting sells, that those stories are among the most popular...consistently.

I'd like to give people the benefit of the doubt and say I think they do care, but in reality I think the majority of stories are probably read because of the American fascination with crime (as mentioned in The Atlantic article). Some stories get through to readers...but I'll bet they're in the minority.

March 31, 2009 at 9:33 AM 
Blogger Tony Gonzalez said...

I imagine I'll be back to comment again, as much of this has touched on some thoughts I haven't really taken the time to properly organize lately.

For now:
1. Thanks for the links. This is a thoughtful post.

2. I've been thinking a lot lately about how crime stories get smattered around the Internet by topic-specific groups. If you abuse and animal or engage in a sex crime, odds are a slew of sites are going to re-post news stories.

3. Crime stories consistently lead as the most-read stories at my paper, but I too have lost some confidence in readers. They seem to respond with emotion to non-criminal tragedy stories, but not to criminal tragedies -- or when they do, it is a simple and repetitive 'my heart goes out to the family' from the consistent website commentators.

4. I am consistently underwhelmed by criminals' courtroom apologies, but I often feel compelled to include mention what they say.

March 31, 2009 at 10:13 PM 

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