We told a familiar story. And the way we told it—in a group of four very different people with very different perspectives—shows just how much diverse voices can transform journalism.
We had to record in a car. The Real Chi Youth room in the Old Sears Tower had horrible acoustics; my microphone would pick up the crinkling of cookie wrappers and chip bags as other young journalists ate snacks and took breaks from their projects. So, the four of us took the world’s slowest elevator down 12 floors and sat in Ronald Reese or Johnny Thrower’s car in the Homan Square parking lot, as I recorded our reflections, conversations and jokes while people walked past and wondered why four 20-something guys had locked themselves in a car in the middle of the afternoon.
Our project — a collaboration between City Bureau and Real Chi Youth — was a short video piece on police settlements: taxpayer money given to people who are physically or verbally abused by the city’s police officers. We’d interviewed lawyers, activists and, in one instance, a woman in Douglas Park whose nephew was killed by police officers in 2002. The story is familiar, but we all came at the topic with different perspectives. Johnny is a 22-year-old from North Lawndale who wants to work in the law enforcement field when he’s older; Ronald, a 21-year-old Marine who works at a factory and who just started his own entertainment production company, grew up in neighborhoods across Chicago’s South and West Sides; Martin Xavi Macias, 27, another City Bureau reporter and an activist from Brighton Park who’s getting his master’s in journalism; and me, a 25-year-old former AmeriCorps member-turned-journalist from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Originally, we were just producing the video piece, but soon I realized that an audio documentary could tell the unique story behind the story. Early on, when I interviewed Ronald in the hallway outside our newsroom, he told me how he’d seen his first dead body when he was five years old: how his mom had asked him not to go outside for a while to stay safe, how he hadn’t been scared, and how he’d asked why, since the man outside of their house had been killed so easily, he and his family hadn’t been shot yet. Then, moments later, he went back inside our newsroom and asked all of us, “Man, has anyone played the video game ‘Dark Souls II’? That shit is hard.”
We wanted to avoid the “tragedy/disaster” narrative that encompasses so much news coverage of North Lawndale and the people who live in similar neighborhoods. The audio doc allowed for Johnny and Ronald’s personalities to shine; their voices go from bantering about girls on Facebook to talking about the merits and pitfalls of aggressive policing. It shows all the complexity of how these two young black men view police in the neighborhood where they grew up, while reporting on it at the same time.
Journalism faces a lot of issues in 2016, not the least of which is its lack of diverse voices. This project clearly shows how invaluable that diversity is. Xavi’s activism background lent us important historical perspectives that contextualized our reporting; Johnny and Ronald, who grew up in neighborhoods filled with residents who’d received settlements because of aggressive policing, aided our understanding of police-community interactions; my work in the education field helped us to process information and talk about how it had — or hadn’t — changed our own views.
Once, on our way to interview an attorney who had represented plaintiffs in police settlement claims, we saw a cop helping an older woman get out of his car. It looked like the officer had given her a ride. Later, while recording tape for our audio story, I sat with my back against Johnny’s car’s dashboard, reflecting on how it was nice to have a moment like that: to be reminded, in the midst of a project about police brutality, that there are good cops who—clichéd as it is—help old ladies cross the street.
Johnny, who’d challenged me during the entire reporting process to understand a police officer’s perspective, felt the anecdote validated his trust in law enforcement. Even Ronald, the skeptic who is wary of cops, said that our reporting had helped him see the good side of police officers.
But Xavi had a counterpoint we hadn’t considered: “I’ve seen good examples, where cops do something good, and I think, ‘Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope that there are some people who are good in uniform,’” he said. “But for me, I can’t separate that. They’re representatives of a system, and that system isn’t accountable.” In three sentences, he showed just how complex and multilayered the story was.
This is ultimately what the journalism industry needs: collaborative discussion that leads to an elevated understanding of each story’s central issues, to give them the nuance they deserve. Those lengthy talks in un-air conditioned cars made us better journalists and better humans by giving us the opportunity to deconstruct our own thoughts and emotions—especially important when stories are (literally) close to home, like it was for Ronald and Johnny.
Now that it’s over, I miss the hot car, the emotional talks that turned silly after Ronald made a joke, the way Johnny played devil’s advocate. How I’d sit backwards in the passenger seat and sweat, pointing my microphone at whoever had something to get off his chest. Most of all, I miss having a built-in focus group where we could all test our theories and hear how others approached the subject, a process that has fundamentally changed my approach to newsgathering and storytelling.
Not one second of it felt like work, but every second felt like we were doing something vital.
Kelan Lyons is a recent graduate from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Now that’s he’s earned a Master’s of Science in Journalism, he’s currently job-searching. His radio piece, “On North Lawndale, From North Lawndale,” premieres on Vocalo on Friday, June 24, and will re-air on WBEZ on Sunday, June 26.
Real Chi Youth and City Bureau’s video project is below.