With Murder Down in Cincinnati, a Paper Puts Faces to Stats

By: Brian Orloff One of the big stories of last year for Cincinnati newspapers was a decrease in the city's homicide rate -- down to 65 murders, from 75 in 2003 -- But a weekly black newspaper there, The Cincinnati Herald, looked past just the numbers and into the stories behind the murders. The result: A front page story earlier this month with photos of 35 of the city's 51 black murder victims under the headline, "Our children are dying: The violence must stop," which has fueled letters to the editor and increased activism in Cincinnati.

"We saw stories in mainstream papers saying 'the murder rate is down,' but these are young people dying, and most of them are African American," Tiana Rollinson, the Herald's managing editor and one of the story's authors, told E&P. "It was more our target to make sure that everyone knew that the real story, and the more deep and impacting story was that these [victims] are young."

For Rollinson and the paper's editorial board, it was important to probe deeper than mere statistics. Instead, the story humanizes the victims, beginning with an arresting front-page layout of 35 solumn faces in five rows, some mugshots, some yearbook photos. Their names and ages are displayed in a green box under the portraits. The graphic occupies more than half the broadsheet page, with the sprawling story beginning on the bottom.

"I see teenagers looking at the pictures and pointing out, 'He went to this school.' 'He played basketball for this team.' And they're just shaking their heads," Rollinson said. "They see somebody just as young as them."

Given the story's headline, it is clear that this project is more than a traditional piece of in-depth reporting. It is the rare case where editors of the 16,000-circulation weekly found it important to link investigation and advocacy.

"This was, as you saw with the headline, not only coverage, but it was also taking a stand," Rollinson explained. "As a paper, most of our employees and volunteers are very active in the community and they are very passionate about stopping the violence."

Members of the newspaper's staff have worked with police on creating educational opportunities that stem from the coverage. Rollinson says that police have picked up bundles of newspapers to bring into area schools. "Police officers are telling the students that they need to pay attention because the violence is real," she says. "And it's active, 'Look at these people that are dying that are your age.'"

"We tell the kids, 'This is about you. We don't want you to be on this cover,'" Rollinson said.

Other local media are paying attention too. According to Rollinson, after printing their story, the Herald has been contacted by radio and local television. Mainstream newspapers have also written crime-related follow-ups, she said.

Of the reporting, Rollinson explained, " Definitely a lot of research! We worked closely with Crime Stoppers. [We] also worked really heavily with the Cincinnati Police Department."

In addition, the main story contains elements of human interest, including quotes from police who provide context, explaining the trend in terms of drug-related crime, and interviews with victim's family members. The Herald plans to continue tracking the story throughout the year, following up on its various strands and remaining committed to advocating for minimizing the violence.

"Since we've gotten some contact with the families, we're going to do some more in depth stories about their loved ones that they lost," Rollinson says. "This was a wake-up call for everybody."


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