How We Made a Human-Centered Homicide Report

How the Houston Chronicle built and reported their area’s first homicide report, guided by a clear mission.

(Houston Chronicle)

The Houston Chronicle recently launched its Homicide Report project, inspired by similar efforts at the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Palm Beach Post, and others. The Homicide Report provides basic details of each death in Harris County, a photo, and whenever possible, a sense of who each victim was in life. We talked with Stephanie Lamm, Matt Dempsey, and Jordan Rubio about what it took to create this project, and how others can learn from what they’ve done. —Ed.

Getting Started, Finding Inspiration

Source: Can you tell us how the Homicide Report got started?

Matt: The beginning of it started December last year. Our digital staff likes to use data a lot for a bunch of quick-hit things… we use a lot of staff time to create things without a lot of depth to them. In addition the digital staff handles all our breaking news things, too. I was in conversations with digital last winter saying, Here are some ideas that we have that would collect some things that you haven’t been collecting before. One of the things I pitched was the Homicide Report. We cover a lot of homicides, not all of them. And I knew that we had seen other examples; it’s not a new idea. Other people have done it, but it’s never been done here, not really. The digital leadership jumped on this idea, they really wanted to do something with it.

Source: Did you take a look at those other projects? To what degree did they inform you?

Jordan: The one that everyone thinks of is the LA Times but I also looked at The Baltimore Sun and Palm Beach Post. We really admire what others have done, and it gave me ideas about where to take things.

Matt: I have been around long enough to remember when they started doing the homicide report in LA. The challenge is that even LA doesn’t do it like they used to. It takes a long time to write stories about every homicide victim. The easiest thing to do is have it be data-driven only. We can get medical examiner data, and have data that says who this person was, their race, gender, how they died, where they died.

To do something more people-focused, we had to figure out at what level we would do that. What do we have time for? How do we strike a balance? We ended up splitting the difference. We got information from the medical examiner’s office and agreed we would make an attempt to contact next of kin for every homicide that we have. We wouldn’t over-promise to the victim’s families. We wrote a script and said what we were trying to accomplish—that it wouldn’t be a long story; we were just trying to get a short encapsulation of who your loved one was in life and not in death.

We ended up having my team, two reporters on digital, and an intern that helped on those calls over two months. That got us caught up [on tracking homicides] from January through July.

Source: That’s a lot of thinking through the varying levels of effort that you want to put in. The scoping is something a lot of newsrooms can relate to. It’s so easy to say that you want to do this great project, but you don’t actually do it because you don’t have the resources to make your perfect vision happen. You found your spot between that. How did the internal workflow have to change, to make sure everything went smoothly?

Data from the Medical Examiner, Phone Calls to Family

Matt: One of the first things was getting homicide victim information from the medical examiner. It was a clearly defined dataset that we could get. The next part was talking to digital, and see how many of these people we hadn’t written stories about. It was to give us an idea of how much we were taking on. In February and March we were immersed in other projects, so this was 15 percent of our time. A lot of homicides weren’t being written about in any way as a breaking news story. Then we broke down who would be responsible for what. Digital would do some things. We would do some things. We are working on getting Metro more involved.

Right now digital makes the request every month for the previous year’s medical examiner data. Then we take a look to see how many homicides got added. Then we decide how many calls to make and divide them amongst the group. Then we call the families. Whoever we get back, we ask for a photo. If we don’t have a photo, we make a records request to get a drivers license photo. For any deceased individuals, we can get those. Before there was no organized process for covering homicides at all, except for bigger stories.

Broader Impact on the Newsroom

Source: Now it seems like you’ve really systematized it. Do you expect this to have any ripple effects, around other features on homicides? Or has it inspired other parts of the newsroom to revisit their systems?

Jordan: We’ve spun off a couple of different story ideas that we’re going to pursue. Now that we have this in one centralized location, it’s easier to see, “oh this is an interesting trend.”

Stephanie: Eighty-three percent of the homicides [we reported on] were due to gun violence. That’s something we can take to editors and make a more concrete story out of that. Another thing from talking to victim’s families: a lot of them are very frustrated with law enforcement, a lot of them think their case isn’t getting solved. Maybe they think there’s a clear suspect still on the loose and they’re concerned about it. We’re compiling trends like that, anecdotally that we can then follow up with. If you’re a reporter going to the scene of the crime for a quick who-what-when-where, you don’t get into that larger trend piece without doing this kind of research.

Questioning the Bucket of Breaking News

Source: Sounds like if you’re able to identify those trends, you’re able to be more influential over how people start to think about this issue, because you’re beginning to be able to define some of the core problems at a systems level. When you were planning through that, were you thinking you wanted to cover something systemic? Or were you thinking you would cover something urgent, and see if something systemic emerged?

Matt: I think we were looking at it as, right now we treat all crime equally. A homicide is just as interesting as a big car chase. It all gets thrown into the bucket of breaking news. We have reporters who cover law enforcement, and who cover crime broadly. But they have no frame of reference to write about homicides with the trends we are pulling. That’s not a knock on any breaking news staff here or anywhere, that’s just how breaking news works. So if we could step back and be a little more purposeful and thoughtful about at least one specific category of breaking news, what could we find?

It empowers us to do different kinds of stories.

Approaching the Interviews with Next of Kin

Source: I’m curious about advice for other newsrooms who might want to do something like this—any advice, but in particular, one thing that’s sticking in my mind is any ethical considerations. It’s a really sensitive topic. Did you codify or help each other work through those things?

Stephanie: I was concerned about retraumatizing these family members. Working on the backlog—people’s loved ones had died in January, and we were calling them in July or August. Matt got a couple that were like, “Why are you calling me now?” Something that helped us was being upfront about what we were doing. Jordan mentioned, “Don’t over-promise.” I made it very clear that we’re not writing a whole story or investigating their case. We wanted to learn who they were as a person. What did they enjoy doing? Where did they go to school? Did they have a lot of friends? Things that make up their personality. Another thing we thought about: if they died doing something illegal, how did we write about that with compassion?

Matt: I had one person who died in police custody. The family was frustrated with the police and didn’t trust what they were telling him. She was very upfront that he wasn’t a perfect person—but she did such a good job of describing her brother to me. He lived a life full of joy. …The anecdote I ended up including was how, during Hurricane Harvey, he swam across a freeway so he could have a beer… For her, that was him. He was a vivacious person who was going to do what he was going to do.

Stephanie: On the flip side is a man who was shot by police as he was essentially terrorizing family members. The family member we spoke to said that [a major trait about him] was how much he loved his family. We made a decision not to include that, because it might offend some people [affected by the crime]. We wrote other things about him but decided not to include that.

No Empty Silhouettes

Matt: There were a lot of design elements that we had gone through over and over, different versions. In one version we had a placeholder “No picture available” thing. But that looked absolutely dehumanizing. It looked like empty silhouettes. We were like, no that’s not going to work. That’s antithetical to what we are trying to do. We had different versions where the medical examiner records would be very graphic about how the person died. We scrubbed that. There were some really brutal descriptions [of gunshot wounds] in the medical examiner records.

Jordan: We’d replace that with just “gunshot wound.”

Matt: We were trying to be accurate without being….

Jordan: Sensational.

Matt: Yes. There was one version where it looked like cards for every homicide stacked in rows and columns. We looked at that, and it didn’t seem right either. We did a lot of fiddling around to be as true to our intention as possible.

The Data is Paramount, Compassion is Everything

Source: Do you have any other advice for people working on similar projects?

Jordan: My advice is two-fold… you’ll get carried away with the technical features, how it should be designed, especially for smaller newsrooms or newsrooms with maybe just one person who knows how to code—or maybe no one knows how, but they’ve seen tutorials. You’ll get really sucked up into what kind of features you want, how it should look. The most important thing with a project like this is the data. How is the data working? How is it looking? How are you going to standardize it and format it? You’re going to spend far more time thinking about how the data should work than you are about how you’re going to build around the data. Without standardization, it’s like building a house with a flawed foundation. The data is the beginning and the end for the app. You’ve got to figure out how to build the spreadsheet. In our case it was how to structure the JSON so that it all made sense. That was really the big technical lesson: the data is paramount.

The second piece of advice for the phone calls is compassion. We didn’t want to re-traumatize them as Stephanie said. Try to meet them where they are. And try to involve as much of your newsroom as possible if you’re doing something like this. In Houston we’re a very diverse city. There are language barriers for certain calls, or cultural barriers. And just be compassionate. These are people with loved ones who led full, interesting lives.

A Big Team, a Strong Mission

Stephanie: I think my advice would be, this is not a project that can launch from just one corner of the newsroom. We had people on digital, Metro, our team, a photo editor, people from the newsletters and audience side to promote it, copy desk. It was a big team, for the better part of the year.

Matt: I think it was really important to have a good mission statement. What was our guidepost? What was the thing we were trying to accomplish? How are we making sure we are being true to that? That ensured we were able to look at design elements like [the missing photo graphic] and say no, no this doesn’t fit. Be patient with new processes. It took a while. It took longer than I think Jordan and I expected. I think we thought it could be launched pretty quick. We had data, and only a few people we needed to call. But it does take some time. …There’s a million different initiatives in newsrooms across the country that start with good intentions, go for a little bit, then peter out and disappear. You need someone who can serve as the project champion. We had an editor who was really good with that. I empowered them—we said we needed someone who was not us, to see it through to the end. Now the hard part is going to be keeping it sustained… We have an update coming up in the next one or two weeks, for August. Where are our bottlenecks? Can we pull in others to help?

Source: It sounds like, no matter how it continues, that you’ve had a lot of institutional support so far. That makes this project really inspirational for so many newsrooms. Thanks again for sharing this backstory with us, and congratulations again on launching this!



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