I recently finished reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo chronicling several years in the lives of a handful of residents of a Mumbai slum. The book is no doubt a herculean feat of journalism about what could be called some of the world’s more insignificant people. In the Author’s Note that follows this nonfiction novel, Boo writes:
When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.
For the past few months, I’ve been working with a team of hungry and talented journalists at DNAinfo.com/chicago, chasing down the stories of every homicide victim in the city of Chicago in 2012. The package launched a couple weeks ago, telling the stories of 509 people killed within city limits.
It’s fair to say that the large majority of these people were ordinary, at least in the traditional sense. Many were former gang members. Others, just victims of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were victims of their surroundings in neighborhoods not only plagued by gang violence, but poor schools and high unemployment. All, more or less, were destined to leave their mark merely as statistics.
Working on this project made me further appreciate the impact we have as journalists and that the individual details matter as much as the big picture. Journalism isn’t merely about holding the feet of decision makers to the fire but showing the everyday, often recurring, consequences of how we’ve shaped our neighborhoods, cities, states, nations and world. Just as the stories of the 20 children and seven women killed last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School matters in whatever debate about guns we have coming up in this country, so should the stories of Nicholas Camacho and Jeffrey Stewart.
All extraordinary things have an effect on ordinary people, in one way or another, and as journalists we have a duty to show that in our storytelling. If we forget this, why bother being journalists?