“Come on over and sit next to me,” said the brother of a paralyzed, comatose shooting victim while sitting outside on his porch in Baltimore, Md., when Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton showed up unexpectedly. For once, he wasn’t working on a crime story bogged down with numbers and statistics, he was telling people’s stories, and people wanted their stories to be heard.
One particularly brutal stretch of violence included 40 killings and 16 injuries in the span of just 10 days, according to The Sun.
The number of homicides at this year’s midpoint – 113 – is the highest the city has seen in years. These homicides have made Baltimore – a city of 621,342 according to latest U.S. Census data – the sixth most violent city with a population of over 100,000 in the nation. Detroit and New Orleans top the list, FBI data show.
As a result, the two Baltimore Sun crime reporters – Justin George and Justin Fenton – are two of the busiest men in the city.
“Time is so valuable in this day and age but there’s just not enough staff,” said George. “We have just two crime reporters covering the city of Baltimore, which is just unheard of.”
But the two Justins found time to take a step away from the generic increasing crime rate numbers story to tell the story of the summer through citizen voices.
Their editors originally wanted to profile the most violent area of the city, but the crime reporters had a different idea.
“Let’s see what the impact of shooting has left on people, what a few seconds of gunfire has done to lives and how it’s changed our city,” said George.
And that’s the approach George and Fenton – along with videographer Christopher Assaf and photographer Lloyd Fox – took when they put together their interactive feature, which includes seven different snapshots of neighborhoods and people affected by the summer’s violence.
Fenton said that they had to rely on stories they already knew about but didn’t have time to follow up on, in addition to court records, which were crucial to tracking down friends, families and victims.
“The only way we could find out people’s names and stories was through court documents,” he said. “Police will never tell you anything until an arrest is made and [the crime] is solved.”
With just two weeks to put together the lengthy feature, George said they were “running around like [their] heads were cut off” in an effort to obtain unique, different stories in each snapshot on the record.
The feature included hard-hitting stories about a husband turned widower and single dad, a family that barely escaped the city’s violence, an aspiring rapper, a cop turned veteran and a city council member forced to speak out against the city’s violence, among others.
But some of the reporting was “hit or miss,” Fenton said, referring to the interview with the brother of the paralyzed victim, when he showed up on his porch, which proved effective in getting a variety of stories.
“People appreciate storytelling,” said Fenton. “It’s hard on a day to day basis where some nights bring five crime stories, in that case you can’t always tell stories and have to do your best.”
The story generated a lot of positive feedback from professionals and the public, which was reinforced through the hundreds of thousands of hits, said George. But what was really rewarding was the response from the story’s subjects.
“I brought copies of the paper to the widower so he could read it,” said George. “And he said, ‘this is word for word.’ […] it felt good because I was accurate.”
And both reporters said they praise the story for raising questions about the common stereotypes of gun violence victims.
“City council tends to make victims seem like drug dealers or involved with drugs in some way, but that’s not true,” said George. “These are normal people who’ve had their entire lives turned around.”
And that’s what both reporters said they hope other publications can do, when asked what advice they would give to other crime reporters in violent cities.
“If I could wish them anything, I would wish them more time spent looking at the human toll of all the violence and get another piece of the story besides how the crime rate is going up,” said George. “They would actually get human voices and find out a little more about what’s happening and how this affects people.”
“By doing that, you’re showing city officials and voters that these are human beings. They’re mothers, fathers, brothers who have done nothing and are innocent.”