There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts at the corner of 31st and Halsted in west Chicago where Peter Nickeas likes to hang out between shootings. It’s open all night, which means an endless supply of cheap coffee, and a clean bathroom. “You kinda need a home base,” he tells The Trace.
Usually the breaks don’t last very long. When he hears reports of a homicide crackle on the police scanner, Nickeas slams his car in gear and speeds in that direction. After four years of covering crime and breaking news for the Chicago Tribune, he knows the city’s layout almost by heart.
Climbing out of the car, he will start to take in the scene: cops unfurling crime tape, neighbors wandering over, the blinking lights of police cars casting a bluish hue over the motionless human form on the ground.
Then, he waits. “You just try to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut,” he says. One night in late October, Nickeas reached the scene of a homicide before the victim’s family members had arrived. He watched as they began to show up: a sister, a brother, a mother. He watched as a cop shone his flashlight on the victim’s face so the sister could identify him. He saw the young woman nod, then go sit in the squad car and weep. When she had stopped crying, Nickeas went over to her and the mother. He introduced himself, and asked if they felt like talking. They began to tell him all about the boy who’d been killed.
“You guys seem remarkably collected,” he said.
“What are you gonna do?” replied the mother, resigned. She told Nickeas her son had been gangbanging since he was 12, and that she’d been expecting this night for a long time.
Knowing when to approach someone requires patience and perceptiveness. Sometimes he waits three or four hours before trying to interview a family member. “You’re dealing with people on the worst day of their lives. Be respectful of it,” Nickeas, 29, often tells junior reporters in training. “I personally won’t talk to a mother if she’s grieving or if she’s crying.” Nine times out of 10, people want nothing to do with him. “We strike out more than we connect,” he says.
This is the craft of the crime reporters who make a living documenting their cities’ bloodshed. Every night, by the yellow glow of streetlamps or the candlelight at prayer vigils, they jot names and ages of victims in lined notebooks. Behind each daily headline is another story, this one about the reporters determined to document the violence, hoping that readers might care, risking they’ll see something they can’t forget.
Jonathan Bullington, 33, is a breaking news and crime reporter for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. He tries to convey to readers the feel of a crime scene in New Orleans, Louisiana — in particular, how often children seem to be around. One morning in early September, he went to cover a triple shooting in the Central City neighborhood. A young girl had been outside her house when shots were fired. She wasn’t hit, but she saw three people fall to the ground. Afterward, Bullington approached the girl and her mother. He asked the girl how old she was. She held up a little thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger: three. “They shoot,” she explained.
The most stressful part of the job — by far — is the stress of watching and absorbing the range of emotion after someone loses a loved one. There’s going to be grief, and anger, and a lot of volatility and tension.”
“There’s kids outside playing just on the other side of police tape,” he says. “That’s really messed up, that this is a thing that they just see.”
Crime reporting can come with occupational hazards. Bullington says he’s been threatened at a murder scene. Beneath his Timberland jacket, Nickeas wears a bulletproof vest. He insists he’s more worried about getting hit by a drunk driver than a stray bullet. Still, it’s a safety precaution police said he was crazy not to take. “I’ve been close enough to gunfire to hear it ringing in your ear,” he says.
Much harder to protect is a reporter’s psyche. “The most stressful part of the job — by far — is the stress of watching and absorbing the range of emotion after someone loses a loved one,” Nickeas wrote in an email. “There’s going to be grief, and anger, and a lot of volatility and tension.” He recounts one night when two mothers dragged their teenage sons out of bed and forced them to look at a 14-year-old boy lying dead in the street. The boys stood half-dressed and bleary-eyed as the women hollered at them, saying they could be next. “I want y’all to see firsthand,” said one.
The worst is hearing people scream — especially mothers — at the sight of a dead loved one. “It’s a wail and a cry and it’s pain and anger and confusion and disbelief,” says Bullington. “I don’t care how many movies you watch, how great the actors are, they will never get it right. It’s just a sound … It’s tough to get out of your head.”
There’s no formula for how long crime reporters last before burning out, or if they ever will. Chuck Rabin, who’s been reporting for the Miami Herald in Florida for 35 years, estimates that “four or five years” is about as long as most journalists stay on the crime beat before switching to something lighter. But with some newsrooms short-staffed, that’s not always an option. Jody Callahan has been writing for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, since 1994, and has focused on crime for the last decade. Reporting on so much death has warped his sense of tragedy, to the point that he’s no longer shocked by 16 and 17-year-old gunshot victims. These days he finds it tough to have positive thoughts about his city. “I think it’s largely because of the crap I have to cover. It grates on you, the evil and the stupidity that you see.
“That said,” he adds, “if somebody else slams my town I’m going to get in their face about it, because they don’t live here. You keep your trap shut.”
This job has made me more sensitive. A lot more sensitive. You just figure, you do something enough, you’re just gonna get hard, you’re just gonna become callous. But for us to be able to do our jobs well you need to be able to convey emotion.”
It’s a familiar pattern: Reporters eventually leave every crime scene they visit, but some scenes never leave them. “I try to, I think all reporters try to compartmentalize things. But it’s hard. I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t creep in,” says Bullington. “I find myself being depressed about things or sad or frustrated, or feeling hopeless about stuff.” A few weeks ago, while sitting in Jackson Square with his wife, he started to feel nervous around all the people, and wanted to leave.
There are times he asks himself, “Why the hell am I doing this? Why would anyone do this?”
Nickeas has an answer: “There’s nothing that touches so much of the city. It touches economics. It speaks to development of neighborhoods. It touches kids in a way that I think is probably underreported.”
At the beginning of 2015, Nickeas had been to about 550 crime scenes. Then he stopped keeping track. He doesn’t think any single one has altered him permanently. “When I’m at a scene, I lock it down,” he says. But under layers of jacket and hoodie, and the bulletproof vest he wears just in case, he tries to keep part of himself exposed. “This job has made me more sensitive. A lot more sensitive.” He goes on. “You just figure, you do something enough, you’re just gonna get hard, you’re just gonna become callous. But for us to be able to do our jobs well you need to be able to convey emotion.”
When he first started covering crime on the overnight shift four years ago, Nickeas saw it as a foot in the door. He planned to do it for a few years and eventually work his way to another beat. But as he went to more crime scenes, something shifted. “Instead of it being something I wanted to get off of as quickly as possible … it became what it is now.”
When he’s off the clock, he goes fishing in the harbor and practices woodworking. Recently, he made his own kitchen table. The hobbies take his mind away from work for a moment, and equip him for the long haul. “It’s draining, but the response isn’t to do less journalism. It’s to figure out ways to deal with it.”
[Photo: Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune]