Published in the Media Studies Journal of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, this was an argument for a return to narrative as a means of humanizing crime coverage. I’d just published my first book and contemplating the second. At this point, though, this is a rather amusing artifact given how the argument for narrative led me, kicking and screaming, out of journalism entirely.
At the moment you begin reading this, some poor bastard three years out of journalism school is sitting at a video-display terminal in a newspaper office somewhere in these United States, fingers darting on a keyboard. No doubt a cursor flashes through line after line of the same simple, tired equation:
“A 17-year-old West Baltimore youth was shot to death yesterday in a murder that police say is related to drugs….”
Or, perhaps: “The battered body of a 25-year-old Queens resident was found by police along the shoulder of a Long Island expressway….” ‘
Or: “A 43-year-old East Los Angeles man was found stabbed to death in the trunk of his car…”
Behold the entrails of any large American newspaper’s metro section—misdemeanor homicides, casualties that will for the most part be interred in four paragraphs or less in those around-the-region packages. Oh sure, if someone is unfortunate enough to be killed in the right zip code, if the victim happens to be famous, if he or she is killed for some unusual motive or in some unusual way (“Police said it was the first slaying involving a staple gun in more than a decade.”), then chances are a good newspaper will give it some space. But most violence, when it first crosses a city editor’s path, looks decidedly similar: drug murder, drug murder, robbery murder, domestic, drug murder.
As a result much of a city’s pain is recorded in that tried-and-true four-paragraph formula, then used as filler on page D17.
A police reporter at the Baltimore Sun since 1983, I’ve probably written a thousand of those briefs, the greater share of them for young black males, killed over drugs or women or disrespect in the parts of Baltimore that don’t show up in newspaper market surveys. On my first shift as a police reporter, I went to the night editor with two separate shootings in the 800 block of West Baltimore’s George Street, thinking it remarkable that two human beings could be victims of gunfire on a single night in a single block.
“That’s the Murphy Homes,” the editor explained, allocating two paragraphs for each murder. “When you don’t have a shooting there, it’s news.”
The logic is, of course, inescapable. Every last one of us accepts the dog-bites-man, man-bites-dog postulate as a working gospel. Inner-city violence, the urban drug trade, the devaluation of black and Hispanic life in our cities—all of it has become so common and so certain that we can no longer regard it as unusual. The limited coverage that results is universal, bloodless and devoid of even the slightest suggestion-of human emotion:
“A 24-year-old South Philadelphia man was gunned down….”
It’s bad journalism. In fact, it’s the very essence of what journalism should not be: writing and reporting that anesthetizes readers, that cleans and simplifies the violence and cruelty of a dirty, complex world, that time and again manages to reduce life-size tragedies to easily digestible pieces.
After four years of writing such stuff, I decided to take a shot at something different, something that might break through the sedimentary layers of daily journalism and unearth what I suspected still existed: a world of crime and violence and pain that even the most jaded readers could be made to feel. In 1988, I took a year’s leave of absence from my newspaper to join the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit as an unpaid observer. Through an agreement arranged with the police commissioner and the department’s legal affairs unit, I followed a shift of 18 homicide detectives and detective sergeants from crime scenes to interrogations, from autopsies to court trials.
To tell the story of a year in the life of a big-city homicide unit, I did something journalists seldom do anymore—with crime stories or any other fare. I made a conscious decision to write the narrative from the point of view of the central characters: four detectives, two sergeants and a lieutenant in command of the shift. As a result, the reader travels through a homicide detectives daily routine accompanied by a narrator who is, in effect, the communal voice of the homicide unit rather than an overtly detached reporter. That communal voice—like detectives everywhere—was tired, cynical, a little bitter, but more alive and interested in the reality at hand than a reporter’s voice ever could be. Example:
“Assuming that the uniforms, upon arriving at the scene, were sharp enough to grab anyone within sight and send them downtown, you then go back to your office and throw as much street-corner psychology as you can at the people who found the body. You do the same thing with a few others who knew the victim, who rented a room to the victim, who employed the victim, who fucked, fought or fired drugs with the victim. Are they lying? Of course they’re lying. Everyone lies. Are they lying more than they ordinarily would? Probably. Why are they lying? Do their half-truths conform to what you know from the crime scene or is it complete and unequivocal bullshit? Who should you yell at first? Who should you scream at loudest? Who gets threatened with an accessory-to-murder charge? Who gets the speech about leaving the interrogation room as either a witness or a suspect? Who gets offered the excuse—The Out—the suggestion that this poor bastard needed to be murdered, that anyone in their circumstance would have murdered him, that they only killed the bastard because he provoked them, that they didn’t mean it and the gun went off accidentally, that they only fired in self-defense?”
True, this is hardly the restrained, analytical tone of professional journalism. Nor for that matter is it the communal voice of crime victims or witnesses or suspects or defense attorneys—though I would point out that nothing here suggests that books of narrative nonfiction devoted to those perspectives shouldn’t exist. Still, the perspective employed here is nothing more or less than the mentality of an American homicide detective, which happens to be the subject matter of my book. Readers seem to understand and accept its stance; so, too, do many other writers of nonfiction and literature alike.
Some veteran journalists, however, read the book and went out of their gourd. They cited incidents in the book in which detectives were revealed as racist or sexist or homophobic or, worst of all, intent on viewing other people’s pain as a source of comedy and amusement. Then they railed at a journalist who presented such scenes, dialogue and attitude without distancing himself, without suggesting to readers that these things were wrong or cruel or deserving of criticism.
“Detectives tell the world’s best war stories,” wrote Edna Buchanan, the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning police reporter in her review of the book. “These are men so intriguing, their mission so vital, that a reporter must use caution. You must not be caught up in their charisma and their thinking, you must not become one of them. To a great extent, that is what we witness here, the metamorphosis of the author from reporter to policeman.”
I should say here that I like and admire Edna Buchanan (love and admire, before the review), who has done about as much with the daily newspaper medium as any police reporter working today. Neither are these the rumblings of a wounded author; Buchanan’s notice was kind at other points and, nationally, reviews of the book have generally been quite favorable. I cite her comments here only because I think they’re indicative of a cautious logic that has held sway in newspaper offices for far too long. And to bolster this argument, I’m inclined to drop a name or two.
Damon Runyon, for starters.
Or Frank Ward O’Malley.
Or, better still, Herbert Bayard Swope.
These people, I would suggest, are the lost legacy of American crime reporting, a grand and noble tradition of ambulance chasing that has been squandered in the modern crusade for our feigned, practiced objectivity. Tell the truth: Was there ever a better courtroom tale than that of Damon Runyon’s wandering, comic rendition of the sensational Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray trial? Has anyone ever given a better account of police corruption run amok than Swope in his investigation of the Rosenthal murder of 1912? And who can forget Frank O’Ma1ley’s New York Sun rendering of the murder of
Policeman Gene Sheehan, an account told entirely through the words and feelings of the dead cop’s mother?
Who can forget it? Practically everyone. Runyon, O’Malley, Swope—these men are no longer influences on American journalism. They exist in newsrooms today, if at all, as apocryphal images of old-time hacks, amusing to us in their innocence. The Rosenthal murder and the ensuing execution of Police Lieutenant Becker? No one remembers anything about it. Long Island’s sensational Ruth Snyder case? What exactly was that about?
It’s a shame that so few remember—not the crimes necessarily, but the free-spirited ways in which crime reporters used to tell a good story. Because from generation to generation, violent crime has been one of the great universals in journalism, a daily source of evocative, emotional drama. And if we believe our own publicity, then journalists are supposed to be the great storytellers of every age. Historians will produce the more exacting versions long after anyone ceases to care, while novelists waste their words on make-believe. Reporters, we like to tell ourselves, are there every day to tell the tale first.
And yet as storytellers, we have abdicated.
Every time a reporter sits down and recounts an act of violence in the same time-honored formula—lead, nut graph, best quote, and so forth—something almost as dehumanizing as the crime itself has occurred. Having lost his art, the storyteller is reduced to the mere transmission of facts, and the cost to the reporter, to the news report and to society itself is certain. Repeatedly bludgeoned with crime and violence by every medium, our culture is now so bored with ordinary tragedy that we only become excited by those crimes that are larger, more unlikely and more bizarre.
During the year I spent in the Baltimore homicide unit, the only murders to make the Baltimore Sun front page involved two separate incidents of arson that claimed the lives of three and two young toddlers, respectively. The rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl, abducted as she walked home from a city library branch, made the front of the metro section. The death of an 81-year-old woman; sodomized and then suffocated in her South Baltimore home, ran on an inside page, next to the weather chart. These are not the results of bad editing decisions, but rather of routine ones—of a process that generates not compelling stories of real people caught in real tragedy, but news articles of compressed, objective fact.
As for the rest of the 234 murders that Baltimore recorded in1988, they were scattered through the metro section, most of them published as briefs in the regional wrap-up. The inside pages were filled with the drug murders, the domestics, the daily bloodletting of the city’s damned in their battered high rises and rotting row houses. In life they meant little to us; in death, even less—interesting to editors and reporters only in their numbers, in the rate and frequency of their deaths or the occasional case in which an odd, unusual fact is noticed.
But what does that say about my newspapers coverage of the violence that plagues its city? And what does it say about the willingness of reporters and editors to bring the true nature of crime and violence to readers? After all, the burned children, the 11-year-old girl and the 81-year-old woman are the rare exceptions; so, too, are rapes and robberies, which accounted for only 16 percent of Baltimore’s murders in 1988. Young black men and young Hispanic men are the real casualties in America’s cities, just as narcotics is the real crime of the ghetto.
And worse than the crime that isn’t covered by most newspapers is what does get space. Consider the stale, hackneyed form of The Solved Whodunit story, which invariably features two earnest, God-fearing detectives avenging the slaying of a true innocent because they believe in the sanctity of human life. The more honest image of big-city police work is a detective with the files for six drug murders open on his desk, chewing on half a cheese steak and cracking jokes as he looks over the latest batch of morgue photos.
How then, do we write honestly about crime and violence, when crime and violence are so remarkably ordinary? How do we make readers feel routine tragedy? And if we can’t ever do that much, how will we make readers see and hear and feel the truth about what’s happening in American cities?
More than any other factor, the structure and requirements of modern news organizations encourage ordinary, repetitive crime coverage. After all, the first demand of most newspapers and television stations is that a crime story be immediate, that it follow by hours or a day at most the actual event. Given that simple truth, most crime stories are stillborn. They exist not as long, evocative tales that bring victims and victimizers to life, but as half-finished accounts of facts that can be called certain in the immediate wake of the incident. And in the earlier hours of a murder or robbery or rape, one incident looks much the same as another. It’s only in the days or weeks of investigation that follow that the real story begins to emerge; by then the reporters are chasing fresh stories.
Alas, it takes a bold editor to pick one inner-city rape or one drug murder and run with it, telling his reporters to pursue every detail on a story that seems utterly routine. More still, it takes a clever reporter to write his piece as a genuine tale, to bring the human element into a crime story, to see the event as something more than filler for half a news column.
Nothing here argues for sensationalism—for the screaming tabloid journalism in which crime reporters badger witnesses as they race from a courthouse door, or steal graduation photos from the living rooms of grieving mothers. In fact, narrative journalism—properly performed—requires a continuing, cooperative dialogue between a reporter and his news sources. How else can a reporter hope to collect the wealth of detail and insight necessary to tell a story from another person’s perspective?
The real ethical threat from the narrative form is hardly sensationalism, but rather the possibility that some reporters will grossly manipulate their sources, as Janet Malcolm suggested in her notable essay, or that some reporters will themselves be manipulated. And yet anyone with sense has to admit that these risks are inherent no
matter what style of journalism a reporter attempts to practice.
That narrative tales so rarely appear in newsprint is in part attributable to the fact that the police beat is regarded by most newspapers and television stations as a training ground for young or inexperienced reporters. A year out of journalism schools, the freshman class is taught accuracy and objectivity and a straight news or news-feature style of writing. By the time they’re in a position to do anything particularly creative with their subject matter, those who began their careers covering cops have been elevated to more dignified beats.
But in larger part, the decline of great crime reporting is our industry’s fixation on objective analysis, our unyielding belief that the stories of crime and violence in our society are best told from a reporter’s point of view. True, not every story lends itself to narrative form and not every tale can be easily told from a character’s unique perspective. Nothing reads worse than narrative written by a reporter who doesn’t have the background, or the talent, or enough knowledge of his subjects. But when the magic works, it works wonders. To put a reader in the shoes of a defense attorney, a judge, a jail guard, police informant, a killer—that’s the glory of storytelling as Runyon and Swope knew it.
Consider Frank O’Malley’s wondrous account of a cop killing, published more than 80 years ago:
“You know how he was killed, of course—now let me talk about it, children, if I want to. I promised you, didn’t I, that I wouldn’t cry anymore,” declares the narrator, who happens to be the dead officer’s mother. “The policemen all stopped talking when I came in, and then one of them told me it wm against the rules to show me Gene at that time. But I knew the policeman only thought I’d break down, but I promised him I wouldn’t carry on, and he took me into a room to let me see Gene. It was Gene.”
Or the beginning of Swope’s classic story of police corruption and murder, told from street-corner level in the New York World of 1912:
“Herman Rosenthal has squealed again.”
“Through the pallid underworld the sibilant whisper ran. It was heard in East Side dens; it rang in the opium houses in Chinatown; it crept up to the semipretentious stuss and crap games of the Fourteenth Street region, and it reached into the more select circles of uptown gambling where business is always good and graft is always high. Rosenthal had squealed once too often.”
Great stuff—literature, of a kind—but does anyone believe that it would get published today? Runyon, O’Malley, Swope—it’s not unreasonable to imagine these legends bringing in their best and most dramatic work, only to have the blood drained from it by the clinicians of this enlightened age. To look at what passes for crime reporting in the 1990s is to conclude that objectivity makes cowards of us all.
That’s why some of the reaction to my book fascinated me. It’s as if journalists so value the weight of our dispassionate voice that we’re terrified of allowing any other view—even that of the story’s subjects—to dominate. Ms. Buchanan, again: “Homicide cops who daily face a job like no other must grow calluses on their hearts to survive. Without the black humor that makes them laugh, they would surely cry…. But we journalists have no excuse for similar behavior…. It troubles me when Simon refers to a man who burned to death as ‘a crispy critter.’ Sure, cops talk like that all the time, but not us.”
Exactly the point. And when I stood in that fire-gutted row house looking at an arson victim, I had two choices: I could write a book showing readers what it feels like to be a news reporter witnessing a police detective witnessing a tragic death. Or I could get out of the way and write a book from the detective’s point of view, granting readers uninhibited access to those who truly labor amid the violence. To David Simon, the dead man in that row house was a horrible sight, something to lose sleep over. But to Richard Garvey, the veteran detective standing next to me, he was a crispy critter. My uneducated guess is that more readers wanted to know what Garvey felt.
To those who defend objectivity at all costs, the implication is that a valuable, essential perspective has been lost when readers are denied the views of David Simon, journalist. But isn’t the opposite true? Isn’t it more likely that a more precious perspective is gained when a reporter understands his subjects enough to tell a story from their point of view? Logic suggests that if we are ever going to return that lost sense of tragedy and even reality to newspaper pages, we are going to do it not by writing news accounts, but by telling stories. And the best stories are not those in which real people are simply named and quoted and analyzed by some omniscient scribbler, but those in which real people act and feel.
In that sense, narrative journalism can in no way be confused with the “new journalism” of an earlier era—a style of writing in which the thoughts and philosophies, visions and verbiage of the writer became as important to the story as the objective reality. Narrative journalism is quite the opposite: It requires a good writer’s style and hyperbole to be sure, but at the same time it argues against the writer’s unencumbered vision. It is, instead, the vision of those living the reality of the event.
Get it straight: To write that a murder occurred in West Baltimore last night and then list the known details accomplishes nothing. But to visit the scene of that murder from a detective’s eye view makes a reader actually feel something. Just as a reader can be made to feel the tragedy through the eyes of the victim’s mother, or brother, or girlfriend, who learns of the death at the doors of the emergency room. Even the cynicism of a precinct turnkey; who locks the murder suspect into a holding cell with 20 other souls, tells us more truth than the simple facts of the case.
Critics of such narrative journalism might ask if the journalist’s role in the process hasn’t been utterly devalued, or if the journalism itself isn’t undermined. After all, if a story is best told from a character’s point of view, then who is to save readers from being misled by that character’s subjectivity?
To that argument I would respond that a journalist who gives himself over to the narrative form does not abdicate his essential responsibilities. Decisions about what information to include and what to leave out, about which quotes should be emphasized or which actions will be recounted—all of that is still within a reporter’s bailiwick. Writing in narrative, a reporter doesn’t establish his own credibility by denying his characters their subjective viewpoints; he does so by portraying those characters as accurately and as fairly as possible. After that, it’s up to the reader.
Example: When I reported and wrote Homicide I was fully aware that my detectives were, at moments, racist and sexist and homophobic. And I was also conscious of the fact that their squad-room humor was often little better than cruel banter. I very purpose-fully kept those moments in the manuscript, left them in every chapter as guideposts for readers seeking an honest view of inner-city cops. True, these ugly moments were revealed to readers from a detective’s point of view, but they were revealed nonetheless. And this is the real question: Do readers really need a journalist to stand up and declare that a subject’s particular action or statement is sexist or racist or unfunny? Why and to what possible purpose? Such things are usually self-evident, and if they’re not self-evident, isn’t it better to allow readers a chance to reach their own conclusions? For journalists, the real test of integrity isn’t whether you convict or acquit the subjects of your stories, but simply whether or not you present the reader with all the evidence.
Two years ago, I managed to get a long story in the Baltimore Sun that told of a drug slaying, and a routine drug slaying at that. I’m particularly proud of the article because it’s written entirely from the point of view of the killer, one Donnie Andrews, whom I interviewed from a federal prison over the course of several weeks.
Reggie saw him first.
Zack Roach. Hanging with a couple of others on Gold Street stoop, watching touts and runners working a package in the breaking dawn. It was coming on six, but the shop was still open for business. Straight time means nothing at Gold and Etting.
“There he is. There’s Zack, there,” said Reggie, slowing the car.
“That ain’t him.”
“That ain’t him,” Donnie said again, playing it off.
Reggie cursed. “That’s him there. The boy standing up.”
It was Zack, all right. On the street. In the open. Donnie looked at Reggie, listened to the tremor in his voice, and knew at that moment that there was nothing else to say, that thing was going to happen.
The murders of Zack Roach and another bystander occur a few paragraphs further into the story, followed by an account of the investigation that eventually led to Andrews’ conviction. The killer’s history, his view of himself, his drug involvement and his crime are also recounted—but all of it from the gunman’s perspective.
True, the article was predicated on a risky premise, and it was hardly the kind of thing that can be called politically correct. Still, the work received a great deal of positive response, both in and out of the newsroom; and strangely, no one bothered to suggest that what they had witnessed was the metamorphosis of a reporter into a contract killer.
A critic of narrative journalism could rightly point out that Donnie Andrews’ view of the crime is hardly objective, that he could well have been shading things to his own advantage. And it could also be said that the views of others involved in the case—prosecutors, police, victims, witnesses—would have been decidedly different. All of that is valid criticism: I checked Andrews’ account against all of the available police and court records and Found no contradictions, but even so it’s not unreasonable to assume that he told his tale to his own liking. Nor is it unreasonable to assume that others involved in the murder would give alternate accounts. Those are the risks of narrative journalism; they can be neither denied nor avoided.
But the benefits are equally obvious.
In this rare instance, the city of Baltimore actually sat up and took notice of one drug murder in a thousand. Whatever else they were led to believe, readers were obligated to accept that on a Gold Street corner in 1986, real human lives were involved in a life-size tragedy. Nothing in any of the newspapers earlier accounts of the crime came close to suggesting anything of the sort. Without fail, they began and ended in the same sad place:
“Two men were gunned down early yesterday morning at a West Baltimore intersection known for drug trafficking…”