< Murder Ink

Transcript

Friday, February 16, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
In Los Angeles, there are nearly 1100 homicides annually, but The L.A. Times covers only about nine percent of them. Some murders are covered, one might argue, excessively, others hardly at all.

L.A. Times crime reporter Jill Leovy believes that no victim's story should go untold. But news holes are shrinking, so Leovy has launched The L.A. Times' new Homicide Report Online, where she'll take note of every death.
JILL LEOVY:
There's sort of an upside-down logic of press coverage in homicide where the nature of news is to cover the man-bites-dog story, and what you end up doing is you cover the statistical fringe of homicide. You cover the very unlikely cases that don't represent what's really happening most days in Los Angeles County. It creates, I think, a false view of who's safe and who's not and where homicide is concentrated. And The Times wanted to give an accurate view of what homicide looks like, both from afar and close up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, in the late eighties and nineties, when inner city homicides were at an all-time high, critics of local crime coverage decried the identifying of perpetrators, and even victims, by race. But you make a point of doing that in The Homicide Report. In fact, one reader wrote into your blog saying, "Your relentless effort to catalog the victims by race adds to their dehumanization." But you don't agree with that.
JILL LEOVY:
It's not that I necessarily disagree. I do record the race of all the homicide victims that are listed on the site, as well as their age and gender and where the homicides occurred, and how they died, if I can.

With the race question, I suppose if homicide were equally distributed among Americans, you could argue that it's irrelevant and we should be colorblind in the way that we talk about it. But the fact is that this is an area where there's stunning inequality. Black males in this country are four percent of the population, and they're around thirty-five percent of all homicide victims.

It's a public health problem, and no more than it would be irresponsible to talk about AIDS without ever mentioning gay men or intravenous drug users, I think it would be irresponsible to talk about homicide and not talk about the groups that are disproportionately afflicted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Is there a sense among the families of black and Latino victims that their stories are under-covered, that there's disproportionate attention paid to, say, the attractive white woman who's murdered in her home?
JILL LEOVY:
Oh, that's a chorus. It's a point of view that dominates, in my experience of covering homicide over the last six years. It's interesting. The question about race and talking bluntly about the disproportionate effect of homicide particularly on blacks, I find to be more controversial in contexts where people aren't experiencing a lot of homicide.

In areas – Compton, Watts, South Central Los Angeles - you generally hear the reverse. You generally hear people say, talk more about this, it needs to be out there more. Why aren't people talking about our victims?

You know, it's hard approaching people in moments of extreme grief as a reporter. It's a very intrusive thing. And occasionally you encounter hostility, but much, much more common is actually kind of a heart-wrenching desperation. I have people actually say to me, you know, tell them, tell people this happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
When you watch the cable news and you see, you know, a Laci Peterson-type story start to unfold hour after hour, wall-to-wall coverage, do you want to just beat your head against the wall sometimes and say -
JILL LEOVY:
[LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
- this is not what crime in America really fundamentally is about?
JILL LEOVY:
I do. I mean, I have to say I was actually doing an immersion project with the Watts Homicide Unit at the time that Scott Peterson was on trial [LAUGHS]. It was really - they had 70, around 70 murders that year, just running on homicides all the time. And in the morning in the unit we would drink coffee and talk about what was new with the Laci Peterson case -
[LAUGHTER]
- and then move on to dozens of other homicides, and it was a little bit surreal. That part of it is the hardest. Dealing with families, all that is difficult in its own way. But that frustration is the hardest part of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Sometimes it's been observed that crime reporters are a good place for the cub reporter to begin; it's not a high-prestige beat at many big city newspapers. After six years on the job, you've probably been offered promotions, or what would be regarded as promotions, within the newsroom. Would you take 'em?
JILL LEOVY:
You know, right now I'm very happy being a crime reporter. It's something that I came to a little later in my career, and I find it to be, of all the beats I've covered, that this is the big one. This is really what makes or breaks you. To write about violence in a way that's truthful is absolutely to be up against it. In fact, at homicide scenes, people will always say this, they'll say, "I don't have words to describe this, I can't put it into words." And there is something so silencing about trauma and violence. It's almost as if part of the nature of it is to obliterate words and language and make it impossible to convey.

You know, my job as a journalist is to witness and to make seen something that I think isn't seen, and to do that you really have to get immediate; you have to follow the pain. That's the number one rule of homicide reporting. You go for that. You chronicle people's pain. You talk about what this is like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jill, thank you very much.
JILL LEOVY:
You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Jill Leovy is a crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times. Her blog is called The Homicide Report.